Paul Willging Says…


Politics is a part of marketing, too

Last month we talked about marketing your facility to the community at large. Let’s talk now about yet another aspect of community involvement: working the political arena. Let’s talk about politics.

Let’s talk about lobbying, which is, after all, just another form of marketing-the goals don’t differ, only the venue. The lobbyist’s primary goal is to “market” certain approaches to issues, in this case through the legislative or regulatory processes. For the “grassroots” lobbyist (this means you), that entails providing legislators and regulators with local insights and personal experiences in matters of industry concern. To succeed at this, you need to understand how to navigate your way through the political process.

How important is this? Much more so than I was ever able to convince my members in either the American Health Care Association (AHCA) or the Assisted Living Federation of America (ALFA). Try as I would, it was almost impossible to convince members that this was as important a function as any they might engage in on a day-to-day basis. But for nursing homes, advocacy has always been a bread-and-butter issue.

Two-thirds of their residents are (and were) paid for from public funds. Even assisted living is increasingly finding its product determined substantially by the regulatory systems enacted by the legislative and executive branches of state government. I would suggest that the difficulties organizations have had with this are more a matter of priorities than of need. There never seemed to be enough time in the day (or interest on the part of management) to energetically and substantively engage in the political process. After all, they argued, “Isn’t that why I pay dues to the association? Why do I have to get involved?” The consequences of that disinterest can have disastrous results for the community’s profitability.

AHCA’s current leadership has made heightened political influence a priority (see “Building Clout on Capitol Hill,” p. 62). President/CEO Hal Daub has proposed a plan to get hundreds more AHCA members in front of U.S. lawmakers, raise millions more dollars for the association’s political action committee (PAC), and exert much more influence in the nation’s capital. And I can only wish him success where others among us have failed. From the school of hard experience, here are my observations as to the prerequisites for effective lobbying by long-term care operators.

Let’s start with the basics. Effective lobbying requires access. If you can’t talk to your elected officials, you can’t persuade them as to the correctness of your views. But here you’re in luck. As former House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill once pointed out, “All politics is local.” That means a politician’s constituents have a leg up when it comes to gaining access. This is not to deny the value of trade associations. Yes, you do pay dues. And working with your association as a “team” can be a most effective lobbying tactic. But ultimately it is the constituent, with his or her vote and financial resources, who will spell the difference between success and failure.

Lobbying is no more and no less than communicating. Effective lobbying, therefore, is no more and no less than communicating effectively. So keep it simple. It’s usually a mistake to raise more than one or two issues in a given session with an elected official. And certainly don’t leave the session with more questions remaining on the table than were answered. Make sure the official knows who you are and why you’re there. What is the issue, and where in your operations will its impact be felt (e.g., staffing, quality of care, your contribution to the local economy, etc.)? Make sure your audience knows when the particular issue will surface. And finally, learn how to do all this in less than 15 minutes. Take more time than that and you’ve likely lost both his/her interest and the battle.

Avoid creating political problems for your legislator. In other words, work toward consensus solutions to any issue. Try not to make him/her choose between competing constituencies.

Make sure you are personally involved in the discussions. Letters are no substitute for face-to-face conversation. And don’t ignore legislative staff. Often it is their advice to “the boss” that will carry the day.

While a constituent can usually gain access to a politician, why would any elected official be that concerned with the views of just one voter? Quite frankly, he probably isn’t. That’s why grassroots organizing is so important. And as it turns out, you’re halfway there. Usually, the most difficult and time-consuming task for the successful lobbyist is building the organization. Fortunately, you already have it in your facility, its staff, and your residents and their families. And if you can expand your scope by involving vendors, local consumer groups, and the like, you will be even more effective.

They will likely look to you, the long-term care manager, for leadership, and fulfilling that role will require effort. Activating and motivating this organization are some of your most critical responsibilities. The members need to be educated and their energies channeled into getting things done with your legislators. And that means it’s time to make sure that your new cadre of grassroots lobbyists understands the legislative process.

Understand, initially, that the real work of any legislator, state or federal, is done in committees. Most floor votes are formalities, and waiting to influence them is an exercise in futility. Recognize also that budgets are usually the legislative vehicles through which many decisions are made. And don’t forget that a politician is always on the campaign trail, and all decisions will be analyzed for their likely impact on the voters.

Given all this, five factors should be considered in communicating with elected officials:

  • Don’t cause information overload. Keep your information concise, accurate, and clear. Keep written communications and issue briefs to one page. And never forget the 15-minute rule.
  • Stress the urgency of the issue, especially as it affects other related constituents (not just your own pocketbook).
  • Be cognizant of fiscal implications, even if they work against you.
  • Know whether your request goes against your legislator’s party line, what other voting blocs are supporting it, and who opposes you.
  • Be aware of the public relations ramifications of your request; be prepared to support the legislator in the media, if requested.

Majority and minority leaders in any legislative body are critical players in determining legislative outcomes (although perhaps somewhat less so of late for the latter at the national level). This is true both for the legislative body as a whole as well as within committees. Indeed, in many cases, it is committee leadership that will play the key role in making decisions as to the success or failure of the legislation. And as suggested, member actions often can be influenced by staff advice. Regardless of the level at which discussions regarding legislation are taking place, keep five basic guidelines in mind:

  • When asking for support, consider the various pressures the legislator (or staff) may be under, particularly from opposing viewpoints.
  • Factor in the party line and whether you are asking the legislator to go against it.
  • Legislation (except in Nebraska’s unicameral legislative body) must pass both houses. You have two chances to win (but also two chances to lose).
  • Know the other side of the argument and have facts to support your position against it.
  • Always assume a compromise might be necessary, and know where you can be flexible.

The most successful lobbying is based on long-term relationships. Contacting your legislator only when in need of a favor is unlikely to foster such a relationship. As a constituent you will be given access, but your legislator is also looking for ongoing support. Here is where using your grassroots organization helps both you and your legislator. Have periodic functions in your facility to which your legislator is invited. You benefit from the contact; the legislator benefits from meeting with numerous constituents in one place at one time.

Another unique advantage you can offer your legislator is your expertise in long-term care. Legislative issues related to aging are becoming increasingly visible. Even when legislation is not directly affecting your community, legislators are anxious for reliable sources of information in areas as complex as long-term care. But don’t be obtrusive or heavy-handed about this. While lobbyists are policy advocates, they must also be educators, facilitators, and coalition builders.

Finally, like it or not, it takes money to get reelected. Always on the campaign trail, legislators are equally preoccupied with the need to find the financial resources to run their campaigns. While PACs are deemed by some to be a perversion of the political process, one has to ask, what is the difference between individual and collective contributions to political campaigns? Quite frankly, I have never understood the objections by those who have no problem with an individual’s financial contribution to a political campaign but who go bonkers when two or more individuals combine their resources for that same purpose. I guess the involvement of one teacher, one union member, or one nursing home operator is part of the great American democratic tradition-but heaven help us if they pool their resources, creating a political abomination propelling the nation into the abyss of political corruption!

Are there abuses? Of course. Should one, therefore, throw out the baby with the bathwater? I would think not. Controlled for abuse, combined giving is, quite simply, a more effective and quite legitimate means of letting a constituency’s views be known to elected policy makers. And while the PAC is a very efficient and effective method of financing campaigns, even more effective are collaborative contributions across a number of different constituencies.

It is important to remember, however, that the political contribution should never be viewed as a quid pro quo. You are providing resources, not in anticipation of a specific political favor, but as a means of facilitating the election of individuals you know to be willing to at least listen to your point of view. PAC contributions do not buy votes. They should, however, facilitate political access. For any legislator, time is at a premium. Given the cost of today’s typical campaign, it is not unusual that a legislator is likely to spend more time with a constituent who is providing both political and financial support. I see nothing wrong with that.

Lobbying the executive branch of government follows many of the same guidelines that pertain to legislative lobbying. Major differences include the distinction between regulatory and legislative action. Also critical is the recognition that the vast majority of executive branch employees are staff, not elected officials. Finding in which department (and at what level in that department) a specific decision is being made is a first crucial step in the process. Furthermore, regulators are bound by the law (at least, as they interpret the law). In cases of differing interpretations as to what legislation really calls for, a last resort is often the judicial branch of government. But in dealing with regulators, bear in mind that the same rules apply as when lobbying legislators:

  • Be straightforward and clear in your arguments.
  • Keep it short. (Remember the one-page and 15-minute rules.)
  • Don’t keep people guessing as to what you’re after.
  • Use facts to back up your position.
  • Don’t hesitate to demonstrate your expertise.
  • Be firm (but tactful).
  • Don’t become emotional or threatening.

So let’s hope Daub and his counterparts in the other long-term care associations are successful in their attempts to energize their members’ political involvement. The nation has certainly had no issue with the involvement of consumers in our ongoing political processes. Perhaps the commensurate involvement of those who actually provide long-term care services might just make for much more informed political decisions.

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