Six reasons why advocates should champion proactive legislation

Posted on February 1, 2017

Generally, state legislators are happy to introduce bills that have little or no chance of enactment. City and county lawmakers also introduce such legislation, but with a little more caution depending on the customs of their jurisdictions. It’s not surprising that state or local advocacy groups may be more hesitant to introduce proactive measures than elected officials, given that they are on the front lines of the battle for our rights. However, it’s necessary to push past that, especially when the opposition is bolder than we are and never hesitates to introduce legislation.

Here are six reasons why progressive advocates should champion proactive legislation, even when the policy is ambitious, the legislative body is conservative, or that particular government has little policymaking power.

1) Introduce policy to educate lawmakers

Unless legislation is introduced, elected officials often do not know that a policy problem exists. Lawmakers have to deal with hundreds or thousands of issues at a time, with constituent service complaints on top of their workload. In most jurisdictions, they also have little or no staff to help them. If lenders are misrepresenting themselves in a particular way, or there’s a specific environmental problem that should be addressed, or women’s rights are violated in ways that are known to activists but not the public, then introduce legislation. It gives your organization a reason to point out and explain the problem to policymakers whether they are liberal or conservative, elected or appointed.

2) Introduce policy to get news coverage

To be effective, progressive advocates need media coverage. It’s the most cost-effective way to communicate with the general public. But it is often hard to make our policy arguments newsworthy. Legislation is automatically newsworthy. It is or can be “hard news” at many points in the process: At an announcement that legislation is forthcoming, when the bill is introduced, when a committee holds a hearing, when a committee fails to hold a hearing and advocates call for one, when a bill passes any committee or body, and even when it is defeated. This is true even—or especially—when the legislation deals with another branch of government, the bill is satirical, or it’s simply a resolution.

3) Introduce policy to frame the issue

The right wing tends to be good at framing. Yet, this is not only a matter of using the best words. The most effective way to frame a debate is to select the policy that will be debated. The right wing introduces voter ID legislation, even when it has little chance of passing, in order to talk about “widespread voter fraud,” a falsehood that Americans overwhelmingly believe. In any area of policy, there are opportunities to craft legislation that sets up a debate where our side has the advantage and the other side has to expend resources playing defense. That’s good politics. A related advantage is there’s something of a tradition among lawmakers that when opposing sides put up a strong fight for their own proactive bills, the legislative body will kill both. In that case, it’s demonstrably true that the best defense is a good offense.

4) Introduce policy to force lawmakers to take a position

Unless they are leaders on a particular issue, lawmakers usually will not take a policy position unless they have to. When there’s a bill, you can pressure legislators who are supposed to be on your side to commit or cosponsor—an important tactic, for example, among advocates trying to raise the minimum wage to $15/hour. When there’s a bill introduced, it’s much more likely you can get opponents to publicly confirm their opposition which you can later use against them. And when there’s a bill you will force your opponents to publicly state the reasons for their opposition, which you can also use against them.

5) Introduce policy to organize and build grassroots support

For many areas of public policy, there is very little that grassroots advocates feel they can do. When progressive policy groups focus overwhelmingly on the federal level, for example, there are very few people who live where there is even a ghost of a chance to persuade their U.S. Senators or Representatives. The recent Women’s Marches demonstrate that we have a tremendous core of supporters. But few are real grassroots advocates because they are not given enough tasks that are positive, realistic and achievable for ordinary volunteers. State and local policies, even resolutions, allow progressives to activate people outside our existing core.

6) Introduce policy to use it in future elections

In many places, it has become nearly impossible to pass good progressive (or even moderate) legislation through a conservative-controlled lawmaking body. Nothing good is going to happen until we elect a progressive majority. But it is awfully hard to defeat an opposition lawmaker in an election if we don’t show s/he opposes our popular progressive legislation. Therefore, one of our priorities should always be to introduce legislation framed so that it’s popular, compels bad lawmakers to publicly oppose the bill, and makes sure that lawmaker’s voters know that s/he did the wrong thing.

The point of being a policy advocate is to fight for your issue. So fight effectively! Get your legislative allies to introduce the boldest (preferably popular) legislation possible, in the form of bills that force your opponent(s) to debate you on your strongest ground. And beat them.