The Guide to Legislating with Less Than 250 Days Until the Election

Charles Cooper

Sifting between the noise and the results.

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The 2018 election is officially less than 250 days away. While that seems like a political eternity (and it is), the election is closer than it appears for policymakers in DC. The House will be in session less than 90 days before the election and the Senate less than 120 days – assuming the expected schedules are not adjusted.

Of course, there will be a flurry of bill introductions that focus on topical issues ranging from national stories to parochial priorities. There, too, will be seemingly endless lists of committee hearings that will provide a forum for policymakers to highlight their leadership on issues and the policy solutions they support. I would also anticipate a respectable number of meaningful legislative bills (somewhat odd for an election year) to get across (or very close to) the President’s desk for signature.

However, impacting the legislative process – by policymakers and stakeholders alike – can be confusing, frustrating and distracting with an election just around the corner. It goes without saying that policy issues in need of a solution don’t necessarily adjust easily to political calendars. Most policymakers and stakeholders opt to pivot towards messaging in lieu of policy during these times – something that may help the political landscape but does little for the policy landscape.

Those who successfully impact the legislative process over the next eight months, despite all the political noise, will adhere to several core factors:

  1. Don’t Expect Headlines: Headlines will be reserved for issues on the extremes, not the solutions that can navigate their way through Congress. Prior to an election, those seeking the limelight are not doing so for the legislative outcome. Unfortunately, policy outcomes generally don’t drive ratings. If your issue makes it on the cover of the newspaper in the months ahead, its probably not going anywhere.
  2. Avoid Politically-Sensitive Issues: The months leading up to an election can develop into an awkward dance between the issues that have overwhelming political risk and the issues that have overwhelming political advantage. With a Senate that requires bipartisan support for anything to move, it’s my experience that neither of those scenarios get across the finish line at this point in the election cycle. If there is heavy political interest in your issue, it will be difficult to be successful. For those issues that aren’t “political footballs,” there is simply more opportunity.
  3. Develop a Broad Network of Support: The noise during an election gets very loud and key decision-makers must deal with both the messaging agenda and the policy agenda, which can often be at odds with each other. Getting through the noise, can be a challenge. Developing a broad network of support can help advocate for your issue and effectively gain the attention of decision-makers that can easily be distracted by the election.
  4. Localize the Issue: Let’s face it, the election ahead will make most policymakers narrowly focus (and in some cases re-focus) on their constituents. While its always a useful tactic to align issues with local interests, it may be more important now than other points earlier in this Congress. Policymakers will prioritize issues that impact their constituents and any meaningful strategy will leverage that reality.
  5. Navigate the Landscape: Opportunities to move legislation are generally found, not advertised. Those who wait for someone to post “help wanted” ads for policy issues to attach to a moving legislative vehicle, will probably be waiting for a long time. It is important to understand what opportunities may exist down the road, who the best-positioned policymakers are to impact those opportunities, and if there are areas where compromise or scaling back could make the issue more attractive to negotiators finalizing a bill. The landscape over the next eight months is vastly different than the past eight months and those policymakers and stakeholders that want to influence the legislative process need to appreciate the adjusting landscape.

It always bothers me when people declare that an election year is a lost opportunity for policy. It’s certainly a lost opportunity for policy that will attract the spotlight but remains a good climate for narrow and targeted policy wins. The most effective legislators will be successful in this climate, the others will hope next year provides opportunities.