The art of influencing legislation

The state Capitol in Sacramento. (Photo: N.F. Photography)

Influencing legislation is a complicated business.  It’s not just money and partisanship – although they play a role.

There is no high-tech computer model that can predict whether a bill introduced in the California Legislature will become a law and, if so, the form it will take.

Lawmakers frequently have little first-hand knowledge about a pending measure, so caucus recommendations are important.

But there are many knowable influences that regularly shape state legislation in California.  So let’s look at a few of the key factors that must be considered by those who craft strategies to advocate for or against bills.

When Capitol observers consider legislation, they generally start with three basic questions that target the law, policies and politics: What is current law? What should the law be? What are the politics of the situation?

In order to influence legislators, it is important to delve deeper into how each lawmaker’s unique views and circumstances determine how that legislator will assess the policy, fiscal and political implications of a proposed bill.

The following list is certainly not comprehensive, but it gives the reader an idea of some of the influences affecting lawmakers’ decisions, which generally come down to deliberation, political bargaining and the personal motivations of individual legislators who are required to cast a vote on a bill. They include:

Political Party
One of the biggest influences — and most reliable predictors — of how a legislator will vote is his or her party affiliation. Legislators typically inquire first about the position of their party caucuses – whether Republican or Democrat — and their vote recommendations. Lawmakers frequently have little first-hand knowledge about a pending measure, so caucus recommendations are important.

But they may not follow the caucus position, and it’s a weighty decision indeed for a legislator to depart from party orthodoxy (i.e., what is “expected”).

Legislators face difficult choices when the views of the district are at odds with the party caucus position.

The job of a lobbyist who is aligned with a caucus’ position is to “hold” the legislator to the caucus position.

But a legislative advocate who is seeking a vote at odds with the position of a lawmaker’s caucus position faces a much more difficult task.

Lawmaker’s District
It is crucial for a legislator to take into consideration the needs and interests of his or her district and constituents.

Is the legislator voting his or her district? On a controversial measure, a lawmaker will certainly consider the potential political impact of the proposed legislation. How will the vote on this bill impact the legislator in the district? Legislators face difficult choices when the views of the district are at odds with the party caucus position.

Legislative Leadership
The leader of the legislative chamber may have the most influence of any legislator. Sometimes the leader’s support or opposition will carry the day with members of his or her caucus. At other times, a legislator may be persuaded by some other factor, but the leader’s position will weigh heavily. Leadership styles vary over time, with some leaders demanding more caucus loyalty than others. A legislative advocate must be aware of this dynamic.

How the legislator will view a public policy issue may be dependent upon his or her personal beliefs.

Interest Groups
The legislator may be friendly with one or more key interest groups.

This can be based upon personal trust of a particular group’s advocates or it could be based on raw, political realities. So, naturally the legislator will want to know how that interest group views this proposal and one of the first questions a legislator will ask the staff is, “Who supports and opposes this measure?” They will also want to know the importance of the issue or bill to that interest group. In other words, is the bill a priority, or is it a bill on which they have simply taken a position but are not otherwise active?

Personal Philosophy
How the legislator will view a public policy issue may be dependent upon his or her personal beliefs. What is the individual’s political ideology? Does a governing philosophy direct how this lawmaker may vote on issues? Does religion play a role? Are there other factors, such as geographic or regional sensibilities, gender or ethnicity? Has the legislator had any personal or professional experiences in life that influence his or her thinking about an issue?

How a legislator views another member of the chamber or political party may be a determining factor, such as whether that fellow legislator is a committee chair, or represents a particular area of the state, or has subject matter expertise.

If a legislator knows little about a bill, he or she may seek out a colleague with more information. Also, a personal working relationship with a bill author is key and can often pave the way for a compromise – or block it.

The vote requirements and other procedural hurdles can affect how a legislator may vote on a bill. For example, there is a super-majority vote requirement for tax-increase measures. Does the need for a large vote of both parties influence how a legislator may vote?

The governor can sign or veto any of the bills and has considerable influence over shaping legislation. Does the bill have any support or opposition from the state’s chief executive? Is the governor of the same political party as the legislator? Has the governor staked out a position in this policy area?

Public Opinion
The opinion of the public can influence legislators as well. Have the media or blogosphere written about this issue or bill? Is there public opinion polling on it? If so, what is the majority’s position? Have opinion-editorials been published in the local newspaper? If so, which position do they advocate?

As one can see, there are numerous factors that influence how a legislator may vote on a bill. There are so many, in fact, that it is often difficult to determine which of those factors has the most impact.

Another complication: These factors are fluid and their influence can vary with different legislators at different times. Many of these factors come into play in different contexts or with different bills.

In other words, one bill may be mostly influenced by a personal connection, while the vote on the next bill may be decided by its impact on the legislator’s district.

Ed’s Note: Chris Micheli is a Principal with the Sacramento governmental relations firm of Aprea & Micheli, Inc. Rex Frazier is the president of the Personal Insurance Federation of California. Both serve as adjunct professors at McGeorge School of Law’s Capital Lawyering Program.

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