As 2015 and the 114th Congress kick off, many interest groups, companies, and organizations are reviewing their budgets and determining activities, investments, threats, and opportunities. While many entities maintain robust government relations programs, organizations, companies, and other interest groups too often wait until they “need something” to get to know their elected officials. Unfortunately, when a crisis hits, such as a drastic payment cut or egregious proposed policy change, there is not time to get to know policymakers and their staff. Thus, reaching out to establish a relationship with elected officials before you ever need something from them is smart politics and strategic relationship building.
Take the time to get to know them – their interests, concerns, priorities, local and Washington, D.C. staff. Help them understand what you bring to their constituents and educate them about your company or organization. Invite your policymakers and their staff to meet with your employees, tour your facility, or co-host a community event like a job or health fair, a town hall meeting, or a round-table discussion on a hot topic like health IT, cyber security and privacy. Create a mutually beneficial relationship founded on trust, good information, and community ties.
Then, should disaster strike and you need help, those in a position to assist know you and your operations and can quickly take action on your behalf. Relationships with elected officials are like home owner’s insurance policies – you are smart to have them “just in case.”
For companies or organizations new to government relations, reaching out to elected officials can seem daunting or overwhelming. Yet, it need not be. Just like any new endeavor, it is best to start small and build out, after enjoying some early successes. Rather than trying to get to know all 435 House Members of all 100 Senators, it is best to focus on your home-state delegation(s) – the Senators and the House member(s) where your main operations are located. From there, reaching out to additional members where you have a presence or connection and/or the Committees with jurisdiction over issues of interest and priority—mainly the Senate Finance Committee, House Ways and Means Committee, and House Energy and Commerce Committee are the next concentric circle outward.
Engage in the seven Rs:
- Research – do your homework and find out a little about your elected officials in advance. Be knowledgeable about their backgrounds, interests, priorities, and voting record.
- Relationship – Like any relationship, establishing and maintaining a connection with elected officials and their staff takes time and nuance. Stay in touch but don’t be a pest.
- Recognition – you don’t have to be BFFs but spend the time necessary to ensure you have name recognition with your Members and staff, that they understand the mission of your organization or company. If the Member has done something helpful, it is always appropriate to send a thank you letter or provide other recognition, such as a plaque or certificate of appreciation.
- Realistic – Create “Hill friendly” materials that tell your story in a compelling and easy to understand format. Providing accessible, useful information will make it easier for your elected officials to help you if/when you need assistance.
- Resource – Members of Congress and their staff have demanding schedules and have to be conversant in dozens of issues and matters. By offering your knowledge and expertise to them, you can become a valuable asset and resource to their office.
- Review and Revise – Take the time once a quarter to review your efforts and evaluate effectiveness, and revise your plan and tactics, as necessary.
- Results – Be realistic and specific about what you want your outcomes to be, especially in the first year with new Members.
Another reason why it is essential to have direct relationships with elected officials is to protect against the “lumping” tendency; unless a member of Congress or staff knows you and your company or organization, they are likely to group you – for better or worse – with others in your industry or issue arena. Sometimes being a “free-rider” for good press is cost-effective, when an industry is being investigated, attacked, or otherwise vilified, being independent has its advantages. While trade associations do a good job with respect to creating economies of scale, representing the broad and shared interests of an industry, and keeping members apprised of developments, they sometimes cannot advocate on behalf of an individual member or take a position on one member’s unique policy priority. Therefore, companies that participate with their community/industry partners while maintaining their own individual efforts in public policy are best positioned for success in the policy and payment arena.
With 61 new members in the House of Representatives and 13 new Senators, some with a background in health care, there are many new players and personalities who have arrived in the U.S. Capitol. With each new face, there is an opportunity for a relationship to advance policy goals, leverage an opportunity, or neutralize threats to the bottom line. Just like paying the homeowners’ premium before the tree hits the house is a prudent step, so is establishing a plan to get to know elected officials in the 114th Congress.
Ilisa Halpern Paul, MPP, is President of District Policy Group, a boutique health care policy and lobbying practice within Drinker Biddle & Reath