The Second Most Important Question in Policy Change

Large red #2 on a white wall
Photo by Claudio Schwarz / Unsplash

The heartbreaking phone calls came to the D. C. office often.

"Can the Congressman vote against this Supreme Court nominee?"

"Can the Congressman expedite the friggin' DMV wait time?"

"Can the Congressman get these numbskulls to stop hunting in my backyard?"

"Can the Congressman vote for the treaty for the rights of women?"

"Can the Congressman get the school board to support more arts education funding?"

Even if he really, really, really wanted to, the Congressman can't do any of those things. Like just about everything in policy, it boils down to one word: power. Who has it and who doesn't.

Only Senators have the power to vote on Supreme Court nominees and treaties. House Members can't do a thing. If you're ride or die for the Independent Guarantees and Stand-By Letters of Credit Treaty - and who isn't? - spend not a minute with your House Rep.

Take a spin through all 39 treaties pending in the Senate. The oldest was submitted in 1949; true to its word, the Senate is one deliberative body.

The DMV is state jurisdiction. Congress doesn't play in that sandbox. Ditto hunting.

And the Congressman doesn't have power over the school board. That's 100% local government.

Why are these questions heartbreaking? When we told folks the Congressman can't do anything because it's a state or local issue, it compounded their sense that government doesn't work.

It's nobody's fault that we don't exactly know who does what. Government is a tangled knot of federalism spaghetti and few of us get taught which strand untangles back to which level.

American federalism is a form of government with power split between a central (federal) government and smaller regional governments (state and local). And state government drew the lucky DMV straw.

So if it's all about power, the second most important question in policy change is which level of government has the power on my issue: local, state, or federal? A little nosing around online should point us in the right direction.

Some issues - guns, reproductive rights - can be state and federal. Some issues - transportation, education - can be state and local (often with some federal money in the mix).

If our issue has a few government cooks in the kitchen, let's start with our elected officials in the level of government closest to our backyard. The closer to home, the easier - which is not to say easy - to get purchase in.

Why elected officials? What if there's a government staffer who calls the shots on our very issue, shouldn't we reach out to them?

We could...But here's my two cents: government staffers are usually hired by people who were appointed by people who were chosen by voters: a staffer at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) was hired by the Secretary of the VA who was appointed by the President who was chosen by the voters. So they're a few large steps removed from us.

Comparatively, elected officials are chosen by we the voters and accountable to we the voters. And while government staffers are accountable to the person who hired them, they are also pretty accountable to elected officials in no small part because those officials have some sway on the purse strings and policy of the staffer's work.

In plain English, politicians decide how much money the different parts of government can have and what they can do with that money. In abstruse English, the legislative branch (Congress, state legislatures, town/city council) votes on the budget and sets the policy direction for the executive branch (President or governor's administration, city/town departments).

So let's start with our electeds. Unless, of course, our elected is a useless sack of potatoes who is plenty happy with the status quo and won't go to bat for us to change it. Then we can see about charting inroads to the government staffer.

Given all that, why is knowing where to start the second most important question in policy change?

Knowing where to start will always be secondary to why we're starting.

It can takes months, even years, to move policy two inches forward. Our rage or righteousness won't sustain us through endless hours of city council meetings or legislative hearings, unanswered emails, circular conversations. And being regular companions with those feelings can be a fast track to cynicism and burnout.

But care – the grandmother of curiosity, creativity, "I wonder if we tried it this way..." – could sustain us. And we have care; we don't rage over things we don't care about. Even grief, as they say, is a form of love. And we will likely need to return to that love again and again.

If we angrily work for the world we want and the policy doesn't change, we may have little but bitterness (and perhaps burned bridges) for our efforts.

But if we lovingly build towards the world we want and the bill doesn't pass, we will still have made a more loving world for our efforts in it. And we will have unburned bridges in our wake to walk across for the next legislative session.

You don't hear "policy" and "care" in the same sentence that often. But we're charting a new path here, so why not choose care as our copilot. And then figure out which level of government to give a full blast of it to.

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