Making the case for conservation in Congress

December 3, 2012

Carpe Diem West recently convened leaders from government agencies, utilities and NGO’s for the latest installment of discussions about how to restore and protect watersheds that are so critical to the West’s water supply. As usual, the ideas shared were innovative and inspirational. Just as instructional, however, was the cold dose of hard reality provided by several top Hill staffers, friends of conservation, but arbiters of practical politics.

Representatives from the offices of Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Jon Tester (D-MT) and Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) confirmed what Americans get about Congress…this key branch of government has descended into a mire of partisanship and gridlock that sets the bar for creativity and legislative leadership as low as the last level of a limbo contest. Still, the panel had a list of useful pointers if you are trying to dodge the pointing fingers and get Congress to do something.

  • Bring strange bedfellows. Now more than ever, Congress requires evidence that the lion is lying with the lamb before considering new ideas. The more unlikely the allies, the better. As one staffer put it, “Think of people that your member of Congress can’t even imagine in the same room together. That’s the kind of ‘Wow’ factor you need.”
  • Tell local stories. Members first and foremost want to know how a new idea will play with their constituents, particularly the ones most directly affected by the idea. Remember, stories need real people.
  • Bring solutions. Washington D.C. has enough problems
  • Communicate the multiple benefits of conservation measures. Saving the planet isn’t enough.
  • If possible, quantify those multiple benefits. Particularly when it comes to jobs (note: I bristle under this notion. I believe the public is suspicious of the term “green jobs.” However, at least in Congress, this is where people are stuck)
  • Be brief and no BS. No time for nuance and no tolerance for being misled. This requires careful honing of you message before you ever meet with anyone on the Hill.

One final bit of advice I coaxed from the panel at the end. It might make more sense to craft local solutions to conservation issues that skip the morass outlined above altogether. Congress responds well to endorsing ideas that are already working. That way the hard work of collaboration and compromise, hallmarks of a functioning government, has been handled outside the Beltway.

For more insights on effective advocacy, check out this great report from our friends at Englin Consulting and Fission Strategy.