Things We Can Ask Our Legislator To Do For Us

A young child's letter to Senator Kamala Harris asking her to stop global warming.
June making a hard ask with a kind tone in a letter to then-Senator Kamala Harris (Source)

On February 7, 2018, then-Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi made one minute last eight hours.

When rank and file members speak on the House floor, they get one plain Jane sixty-second minute.

But House leadership has the privilege of a Magic Minute, where they can speak for as long as the spirit moves them. And the spirit moved Leader Pelosi from 10:04am to 6:11pm. She wore high heels, took the occasional sip of water.

During that time, she called on Speaker of the House Paul Ryan to bring up an immigration bill. She read stories of folks who are undocumented. She encouraged Republican leadership to "man up" and bring the bill to the floor.

The Office of the House Historian said it was the longest continuous speech to date in the lower chamber. Speaker Ryan said it was "pretty darned impressive." He also didn't bring up the immigration bill Leader Pelosi wanted.

Legislatures, by design, deal with legislation and across legislative bodies, one of the majority's big powers is control over what legislation comes to the legislature's floor for a vote. (Having just gotten a word starting with "legislat-" into a sentence FIVE times, I shall now attempt to do it SIX times. So, when legislators introduce legislation in the legislature...)

But the minority can make a big public stink to bring more visibility to an issue. And if our legislator is in the minority, or if we don't think legislation is the smart ask, there are some other things we can request legislators to do besides - as Destiny's Child said so well - bills, bills, bills.

Why wouldn't legislation be the right ask? Let's remember that passing bills is as easy as biking across the Sahara. So if there's a non-legislative fix for an issue we have, by all means, let's explore it! More on that below.

Use the Bully Pulpit
Leader Pelosi didn't do the Magic Minute to get an immigration bill to the floor. She's a whip smart political operator and surely knew Speaker Ryan wouldn't budge.

She did the Magic Minute to shine a bright spotlight on both the issue and the Speaker's inaction on it. That's the stuff campaign ads are made of right there; the subtext being that if you want action on this, vote my party back into the majority.

Elected officials all have the power of the bully pulpit to get eyeballs on a cause, whether via social media, comments during a Committee work session or mark-up, floor statements, press releases, press conferences, hosting a briefing, op-eds, or for the very special few, the Magic Minute.

If there's an issue we want to raise awareness on - and awareness is key to building support - we can ask our legislator to make a statement on it. Maybe it's to mark our town hitting a certain number of folks experiencing homelessness, to tell the story of a veteran who died by suicide on the anniversary of her death, to call for sidewalk improvements so kids can safely get to school.

Heck, we can lower the barrier to yes and write the statement/talking points for the legislator. No guarantee they'll use our words, but when I worked in Congress, I'd regularly draw from suggested remarks that trusted advocates sent me. (More on how to become a trusted advocate here!)

What's the power of this? Showing that a legislator - the very person who could help change policy - cares about this issue goes a long way towards building the visibility, credibility, and all kinds of other ility's of an issue. It also lays the foundation for that legislator to be a bill sponsor if legislation is needed in the future.

Begging the Question
Legislators, especially of the state and federal varietal, can ask questions of the Executive branch - the Governor/President and their cabinet: Department of Agriculture, Secretary of State, Fish & Wildlife, etc - that we mere civilians can't do as easily.

One rule of the road: the higher up the food chain our question is directed (Dear Mr. President, WHY AREN'T WE PRIORITIZING CREATING MILLIONS AND MILLIONS OF MILES OF BIKE LANES???? Warmly Yours, Me), the less likely we are to get a swift answer. The lower down (Dear Deputy Assistant Secretary for Transportation Ann Shikany....), the more likely we are to get a timely - as far as government goes, that is - response.

Agencies are overseen and funded by the legislative branch, so legislators have some leverage over them. This is not to say that you and I are screaming into the void when we contact an agency. But agencies don't report to the public in the same way that legislators do.

Agency leadership isn't elected; it's usually appointed by the President or Governor (and sometimes confirmed by the legislative branch). The folks who work for an agency report to the agency's leadership, not us. Whereas legislators report directly to us - in many ways, but most notably on Election Day.

So if we'd like to see the federal Department of Transportation prioritize bike lanes in the next Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (read all about this mighty manual that we entrust our lives to - no joke - here!) or the state Department of Agriculture change its pesticide usage policy, we can ask our legislator to raise it with the agency.

Before we make this request, we want to be sure we've got our facts straighter than straight. Is it this agency's jurisdiction? Is it a state issue, not a federal issue? Was this an agency regulation versus a policy change by the legislative branch?

Doing our homework on this takes time, for sure. But it also grows our expertise on the issue, which can pole vault us into the rarefied air of being a trusted partner with our legislator.

These are just a few of the levers legislators can pull on our behalf. And believe you me, special interest and lobbyists ask legislators to pull them all the time. So I see no reason why you and I can't, too.

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