A Resolution Strategy for Policy Advocates

Posted on February 15, 2017

Passing legislation is mostly about politics rather than policy.

Progressives can have the greatest idea, backed up by a mountain of reports and an army of experts, and get nowhere near enacting it. At the same time, our opponents often have a terrible idea, which reports and experts overwhelmingly condemn, and yet it becomes law.

Much of the time, the problem is that our side’s grassroots and “grasstops” support is not big or strong enough. Here are three reasons why progressives usually haven’t organized enough supporters to win.

  1. We tend to be on the defensive and need to be on the offensive. The attention of the press, public and lawmakers is often sucked up by right-wing legislation, especially their craziest stuff. We need to shift attention toward progressive policies that are popular with voters. We need get some of our policies in the headlines. How can advocates get excited about our issues if they’ve never heard of them?
  2. We tend to use the same-old methods of organizing that aren’t working. Even when our side pushes proactive legislation, our usual methods revolve around introducing the bills first and then—with very little time to organize—asking citizens to contact their lawmakers. Especially in a state legislature limited to a short session (most of them), the best time to organize is when the lawmakers are not in session.
  3. We often have tax-exempt (c)(3) money but lack sufficient (c)(4) lobbying money. Our opponents are always going to outspend us. Progressives win when we out-organize the right wing, but we need to employ legitimate “public education” tactics to build political will.

There is a straightforward solution that has worked repeatedly but is little known outside the State of Maryland. It’s a Resolution Strategy.

This strategy is described in the book The DeMarco Factor: transforming public will into political power by Michael Pertschuk, who served as chairman of the Federal Trade Commission and co-founder of the Advocacy Institute. It’s been used successfully to win legislative battles for stronger gun laws, greater alcohol and tobacco taxes, a surtax on large employers that don’t provide health insurance, an expansion of health care for low-income residents, limits on prescription drug prices, and against the expansion of casino gambling.

The strategy is based around the creation of a Resolution (like this and this) for organizations and individuals to endorse a specific policy before that policy is crafted into legislation. This is not a resolution that’s introduced in the state legislature, it is a statement of policy that can be adopted by state and local civic, labor, religious, professional and policy groups from the state Bar Association to a local garden club (depending on the issue, of course).

The Resolution can be adopted by local city, county and town governments and endorsed by mayors, county executives, police chiefs and sheriffs. It can be adopted by colleges, hospitals and individual corporations, and endorsed by prominent doctors, lawyers, psychologists, professors, and chief executives of every kind.

These are all “grasstops” allies. Once enlisted in the cause, these organizations and leaders can be encouraged to mobilize their own members and supporters when the campaign needs to generate calls and letters or turn out individuals for demonstrations and lobby days. Many also have paid lobbyists who can make a crucial difference when general policies become specific legislation.

It is far easier to get organizations and individuals to endorse a Resolution than a bill. Many groups will never get involved in legislation but can endorse a policy direction. Many groups are justifiably wary of the crucial details of legislation but are okay with a relatively simple, freestanding statement about policy. The Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative has persuaded as many as 1,200 groups to endorse one of its Resolutions.

If done correctly, the creation of and advocacy for the Resolution is an exercise in public education under IRS rules. It can be done with tax-exempt 501(c)(3) funds.

Most important, the process of getting groups and individuals to support the Resolution activates people. It’s a way to make policy advocacy accessible and understandable to individual, nonpolitical residents. It gives them something to do that is practical, achievable, and requires little technical knowledge. And once a volunteer wins a small battle to have the Resolution endorsed by a relatively friendly town council or civic group, that individual is ready and eager to win the next, bigger battle.

One of the biggest mistakes progressives make—again and again—is to decide ahead of time who will lead grassroots activities in a given city, county, town or legislative district. The best individuals—for a particular issue, time and place—will volunteer themselves if you just give them the chance. This is how the incredible 0bama 2008 organization was built, by keeping an open mind and watching to see which volunteers had the drive to distinguish themselves and become grassroots leaders. The Resolution Strategy gives you the chance to build that kind of ground-up movement.

We’ll give more explanation of this strategy in future IdeaLog posts, but let us mention a few “best practices”:

  • The Resolution should be thoroughly poll-tested before advocates start using it. This is the policy that will ultimately turn into legislation—better to find the best framing at the beginning instead of changing course in midstream.
  • The Resolution works best when a handful of core policy groups—and funders—agree to it upfront. Stop the all-too-common intramural bickering before it starts.
  • The Resolution enables progressives to approach faith groups for support. Our movement doesn’t do this nearly enough. Faith leaders have moral authority and a built-in network. Faith leaders are excellent speakers and compelling spokespeople. And faith groups bring real diversity—racial, economic, religious, political—to the cause.

To use democracy to change public policy, we need to channel the beliefs and aspirations of our jurisdiction’s citizens in a way that citizens understand and lawmakers feel. That’s what the Resolution Strategy does. In the words of the DeMarco Factor, it helps transform public will into political power.