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Government Relations Opportunities in an Election Cycle
By Michael L. Payne, Executive Vice President, SmithBucklin

This fall will be a busy political season, with the Presidency, 469 seats in the U.S. Congress, 12 gubernatorial seats and scores of other state and local positions up for grabs. Although a common assumption is that associations shouldn’t spend much time or effort reaching lawmakers in an election year, political insiders know that elected officials can be particularly attentive during campaign season. In fact, associations can attain an increased level of access during this time because candidates want to tap into the expertise and leadership these types of organizations can offer regarding their industries and professions. Political figures at all levels use this insight to inform their thinking and, ultimately, the positions they take for creating, shaping and passing new laws and regulations.

Associations that advocate for their members’ interests now by planning advocacy efforts and building relationships with candidates at all levels will be able to make a significant difference in 2016, 2017 and beyond. Following are some activities that associations and their boards can consider.

Build Relationships in Washington, D.C.

There are a limited number of days in which the U.S. Congress is in session between now and the first quarter of 2017. Besides visiting politicians in their offices in Washington, D.C., associations can also coordinate impactful activities for members in their respective home states. Nothing substitutes for the local connection an individual can make “back home” with federal legislators.

Depending on the industry or profession represented by your association, such activities could include hosting a tour of a healthcare facility, manufacturing plant, or other site or facility that would enable you to educate lawmakers about your members’ concerns and issues. Alternatively, one-on-one or small-group meetings, receptions or question-and-answer events could be held to help your stakeholders get to know the lawmaker better, understand his or her needs and challenges, and, of course, position your organization as a resource for reliable information on specific topics.

The key is to build or strengthen relationships with lawmakers. When it comes time for them to vote on legislation that directly impacts your association and its membership, they will better understand the facts and issues regarding your profession or industry. Yes, monetary contributions help, and some associations have political action committees (PACs) for that purpose. However, it is important to remember that building relationships in Washington, D.C. is not necessarily tied to financial support. For associations that don’t have PACs, the currency of strong relationships can be equally or — in some cases — more effective. Finally, grassroots involvement is also a great way to energize your membership in support of your national-level advocacy efforts.

Build Relationships at the State and Local Levels

Like federal-level candidates, state and local officials also benefit greatly from touring venues that enable your association to tell its story and help the candidates understand the contributions your business or professional practice makes to the state, city, or local jurisdiction they represent. It is also important to remember that many officials elected to serve at the state level may ultimately end up in Washington, D.C.

Associations with state and local chapters have built-in structures for a more localized advocacy strategy. For national associations, board members can play a key role in forging relationships in their own states and home districts. Associations can also identify key states in which mission-critical issues can be impacted, and focus localized efforts in those geographic areas.

Plan for 2017

Following the November elections, lawmakers at many levels will be taking action and making decisions in a wide variety of areas. For example, immediately following the swearing in of members of the U.S. Congress in January, leadership and committee assignments will be made. Then, issues of infrastructure development, economic improvement, healthcare reform, tax reform, social programs and defense spending will be addressed. State legislatures will also go through an adjustment and restructuring period before tackling pressing issues.

What boards can consider now in preparation for next year is the development of a strategy for state- and federal-level advocacy efforts that focus lawmakers on the importance of each issue to your members, your profession and the industry. Here are some board-driven activities that can set the stage for a proactive (rather than reactive) approach:
  • Frame the issues that are important to your members and consider conducting research that may prove vital for your industry or profession, or developing white papers emphasizing your sector and your interests;
  • Schedule visits to Washington, D.C. to meet with legislators who are assigned to committees impacting your industry;
  • Organize your membership to meet with candidates and elected officials locally;
  • Develop issue briefs and talking points for your membership;
  • Consider creating a coalition — a group of like-minded lawmakers who impact your industry — that you could educate on issues as needs arise;
  • Monitor relevant pieces of legislation as they are introduced and debated; and
  • Fine-tune your grassroots advocacy approach so that you are ready when the time comes for state-specific, or large-scale advocacy efforts.
Every year, the National Lumber and Building Material Dealers Association (NLBMDA) hosts a Spring Meeting and Legislative Conference. This year is no exception. Its membership is well prepared to carry the association’s message to members of Congress. This includes laying the groundwork for working with a new Congress in 2017, as well as identifying sponsors and cosponsors of an important association-backed bill that will need to be re-introduced and advanced next year.

The American Society of Extracorporeal Technology (AmSECT) is an organization of perfusionists, who are medical professionals specialized in maintaining a patient’s heart and lung function during cardiac and other critical surgeries. With AmSECT’s help during the most recent legislative session, the North Carolina Society of Perfusion was able to deliver the sources, facts and rationale for tabling further consideration of legislation that would have threatened state licensure of these highly trained critical care professionals. The relationships established with lawmakers in this effort, combined with an organized grassroots effort going into the fall election, have placed the association in a favorable position with respect to the next state legislative session in the event that similar legislation is proposed in the future.

  Michael Payne is an executive vice president at SmithBucklin. His responsibilities include managing SmithBucklin’s government relations team and working with a number of associations on advocacy efforts. Payne previously served as deputy to the assistant secretary for Congressional Affairs in the U.S. Department of Commerce.

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Board Forward is published 10 times a year by SmithBucklin, the association management and services company more organizations turn to than any other. SmithBucklin has served volunteer board members for 70 years.


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