In red states, cities and counties, prepare an amendment strategy

Posted on March 11, 2020

Many lawmakers and advocates work in states, cities and counties where there is no chance to enact progressive policy. The votes for equity and justice simply aren’t there.

In that case, your efforts have two purposes. The first is to educate policymakers, media, organizations, grasstops leaders and the general public about the merits of your policy solution. In future years, when it’s finally possible to enact your legislation, you’ll be ready. But by itself, education does not justify the expense of a major advocacy campaign.

The second purpose is more important. It is to create the conditions for popular progressive issues to become powerful election issues. You indirectly influence election campaigns by creating public demand.

So, even if you are in a “red” state, county, city or town and you’re confident that your policy will go nowhere, have progressive policymakers introduce it anyway. For example, to end government subsidies to rich corporations, guarantee Internet privacy, restrict predatory banking practices, protect people’s health insurance, address climate change, or make the tax system fairer.

Using the legislative process to generate news hooks, get as much media coverage as possible, including events when the bill is introduced and protests when it is held up or killed in committee.

Then—here’s the Amendment Strategy—have a lawmaker offer the bill as a floor amendment to your opponents’ legislation or to the budget. Force your opponents to vote against it in a recorded vote. That will give you a high-impact news story, while also providing election challengers with something very specific to attack.

A public vote makes it easier for your issue to be used in elections. And this is why you want to use a popular and high-profile policy, because challengers won’t elevate anything that’s unpopular or obscure.

The main challenge when using this tactic is that many legislative bodies have rules about what amendments are “germane.” Most state legislatures have a “single-subject” rule. So you will need a parliamentary expert to help figure out when you can successfully force a public vote on such an amendment.

Let’s make this clear: When you’re in a jurisdiction dominated by conservatives, you have very little power; you’re going to lose on the most important legislation. So be bold; swing for the fences. Ideally, you should focus on ideas that capture attention and, simultaneously, are fairly easy for the public to understand. Nothing incremental or compromised, nothing complex. Choose policies that create controversy, make news, energize the base, and get everyone talking about progressive values. In other words, use an amendment strategy to demonstrate exactly what you stand for.