Advocacy in Aging Policy: Working the Bills on Capitol Hill(s)

By Freeman, Iris C. | Generations, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Advocacy in Aging Policy: Working the Bills on Capitol Hill(s)


Freeman, Iris C., Generations


How to do it in the real world.

Caricatures of activists and the legislative process sell movies. In the 2003 movie Legally Blonde 2: Red, White, and Blonde, the lead character Elle Woods (played by Reese Witherspoon) arrives in Washington to fight for animal rights, bubbles her way through Congress, drafts a bill faster than one can jot a gift card, meets adversity with unlimited creativity, and triumphs in a pink and pleasantly scented flash. With her zany passion for the issue, her mission is achieved in less than two hours, with front-page parades, noble demands met, and justice meted out to wrongdoers. To borrow from Ernest Hemingway (1926), "Isn't it pretty to think so?"

But, of course, if Elle's story were presented realistically, it might have a bit less cinematic oomph. A documentary would show Elle and her allies precisely defining their problem, clarifying what law or rule must be written or changed, and researching the pertinent federal and state authorities to identify the decision maker to be targeted. Cut to the starlets specifying their goal, their dream scenario, and their fallback; pondering their advocacy strategy; drafting their proposal and assessing its feasibility. Imagine them identifying the "stakeholders" and the friends who could be relied on to help, counting their resources, admitting their gaps, recognizing their opponents and obstacles, drafting a short- and long-range action plan and dividing the labor, all with an underlying commitment to routine evaluation.

The foregoing agenda, however, is not the stuff of entertaining movies; it is the accustomed lot of nonfictional, long-haul advocates, including those in aging. These arc the real pathways to appropriations for Alzheimer's research, to required credentials for home health aides, to a prescription drug benefit in the Medicare program, to the availability of winter fuel-assistance for poor older people in cold climates. Real advocacy is plied with steady routines and the more mundane realities of human relations.

To give the fictional renditions of the process their due, there can be an clement of drama in the intrigues, competition, and periodic reprisals that occur in real-life Washington and state capitols. One does have to learn the informal processes that seem to outnumber the recorded rules of engagement, as well as whom to trust for information. One should also learn the parliamentary maneuvers that can be employed to derail a bill or to revive a bill presumed defeated. Nonetheless, the realities of moving the machinery of aging policy are not box-office material, and they cannot be briefly described.

What follows, then, is a look at the essentials: a kit containing illustrative elements of legislative and administrative lawmaking systems, recommended sources of legislative and administrative information available on-line, and, to summarize, a dozen practical principles for action.

LEGISLATIVE SYSTEMS

Key ecological elements of lawmaking and rulemaking systems shape advocacy strategy. Effective approaches and actions follow, determining the locus of decision making, the background and functions of key persons, the workings and timing of pertinent processes. Among the states and the federal government, there are both parallels and differences in the official roles and processes. Across all, the advocate's goal is to persuade interrelated people who are operating in a formal but not universally predictable context.

Persuading public officials, especially those hostile to your proposal, is topic enough for a separate paper. Basically, three considerations should dominate your planning (Richan, 1996). First, where is the individual's attention focused? If the official is wrapped up in funding a new football stadium, a low-key social service program may be of no immediate interest. Second, what does the individual appear to believe to be true about your issue? Those perceptions should determine how you frame your argument and whether intermediaries might be needed. …

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