What legislation will pass

When designing legislation which has a chance of passing, there are a number of things which a legislator or non-profit needs to keep in mind. Based on my personal experience as a Carbon Washington employee, and volunteering for education and LGBT* rights, I have a few ideas, 3 regarding specific bills, and 2 regarding general political behavior:

  1. Any bill you propose should explicitly focus on one, and never more than two, issues. There will never be a single bill which will solve all of the world’s evils.
  2. Every piece of your bill should work with every other part of the bill towards solving the problem or two which you are trying to address. No section of the bill should explicitly undercut another section or the stated goal. Riders kill bills.
  3. Amendments will almost definitely whittle down your bill when it is being worked on by the legislature, the times they will strengthen your bill are few and far between. If you have any chance of passing legislation you need to start with a bill which is as strong and coherent as possible. This doesn’t mean a word limit, but the sections should clearly link to each other.
  4. Be decisive about your values, honest with everybody, and willing to take a stand for what is right.
  5. You only have so much political capital. Political capital is the amount of time you get talking to voters and legislators, which limits how much you can pass in a given year before fatigue sets in. Previous successes give you legitimacy, increase your political capital, as does having supporters on your mailing list and having many small donors to your campaign. 1000 donations of $3 is worth more than one donation of $3000 because those 1000 people have more time they can use to volunteer for you than one individual. Alienating supporters and losing reduces your political capital, and financial resources. Use it wisely.

The reason I say these three things is because of my experience over the last 7 years lobbying for different pieces of legislation on several topics. The legislation I have worked on which has passed followed all of these points. Several major high-profile pieces of legislation I have watched and a couple which I have worked on failed one of these three tests. These rules are based on my observations working on the climate fight here in Washington State.

The first rule is addressing a concern which a lot of environmental groups brought up with initiative 732. They argued and argued about where we should put the money, which no one could agree on. Some environmental groups outright opposed the initiative for this reason alone, even though their official communications were essentially slander. There are a lot of problems in this world which need to be corrected, and it is going to take a lot of time and energy. Choosing to oppose an environmental initiative because it isn’t focusing on education is ludicrous. They are two different issues, with connections to be sure, and are both very important, but refusing to work on one issue before another is complete guarantees nothing will ever get done until that behavior stops.

Governor Inslee’s carbon bill and Initiative 1631 are what I am addressing with point two. They were riddled with exemptions for most of the worst polluters in Washington State, and when I was talking to legislators about his bill I was hoping they hadn’t read it. The exemptions lost support and reduced the enthusiasm for both of them, because they were counter productive. Bills should NEVER include sections which undermine themselves, this guarantees failure in my experience. You should absolutely never write in sections which your core voter bloc will find reprehensible, because this will definitely lose you more votes than you will gain. On the other hand, if you focus on one issue, address it very well, then everybody who agrees with you on that one issue will be easy to convince to support it. If you make it complicated and try to focus on too many issues at once, then you will lose votes, getting nowhere. This can be summarized in two ways:

  1. Riders kill bills.
  2. If you can’t fit the summary of a bill on one side of a 3×5 note card, it is already dead.

Point three is based mostly off of the American health care debate, particularly Obamacare. Every Democratic President since Franklin Delano Roosevelt has tried to expand health care to all Americans. President Johnson succeeded in creating both Medicare and Medicaid by starting from a point of strength. President Obama succeeded by putting together a bill which had a chance of passing, and with every section working together as one well oiled machine. All three systems are not as grand as they were originally proposed, but they were able to get through because they were congruent and strong from day one. A weaker bill in 2009 would have failed. A Medicare For All bill unfortunately also would have failed. To solve this, Obama wrote a bill based heavily off the German health care system and succeeded in passing it. This rule does not apply as much for intiatives, but it is a law I have observed while working on lobbying in the Washington State Legislature.

The fourth point applies to everyone who is talking to an elected official or working on a campaign. You must make a direct ask on what you want that person to do. It is not rude to say to a voter, “I would like you to fight global warming by voting yes on Initiative 732” or something like that for whatever you are working on. Politicians talk to a lot of people every day, and when talking to politicians you have to be very clear about what you want them to do. This ties in a lot with my second point, where you need to keep your bill simple if you have a chance of passing it. In Washington you only get 15 minutes per meeting with a legislator, and during that time you need to get as much information into about 5 minutes as you can. Having a bill which focuses on a single issue and isn’t self-defeating will ensure this time can be used effectively. However, if the bill you are working on has sections which counteract the declared point of the bill you are going to spend most of your time trying to explain that while the bill has sections which are counterproductive, the senator should still vote for it. This wastes your time, and you will probably fail.

Case in point: I was talking to Senator Tim Sheldon from Hoodsport, Washington last year about an environmental bill I supported. He was on the fence about it, but this was one which was clearly written and well-designed. He was obviously on the fence on it from the beginning, but since it was clearly an environmental bill I just had to mention that our district is the home of massive forestries and fisheries, and how global warming and the pine beetle invasion is already killing jobs in our district. He ended up voting for the bill out of committee later that week, and I believe my talking to him made a real difference that day. That bill didn’t include any riders or exemptions to it either, which made my job relatively easy.

Another example of strong legislation is the 100% clean electricity bill which was passed this year in Washington State. It isnt the most radical proposal by a long shot, but it does 3 things:

  1. It eliminates emissions from electricity production over 20 years.
  2. The entire bill is focused on that one goal, with no exemptions.
  3. It started off strong and ended strong.

The bill is now law.

A lot is going to happen next year, and a lot of planning is going to be done by environmentalists here in Washington State. Hopefully we will learn from our successes and failures of the last 5 years so we can pass meaningful legislation next year which will make a real difference.

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