Political Influence: The Importance of Issue Expertise

Influence in Washington is primarily about “what you know” and “who you know.”  The “what you know” piece of this equation is about substantive, issue-based expertise.  Public policy issues are often complex.  What is the problem being addressed?  What are its causes?  What options are there?  What are the pros and cons of those options?  What are the associated costs?  What are the political dynamics?  Anyone who can answer these questions knowledgeably and credibly has power.

In Washington, one of the most influential nonprofit organizations on issues affecting low income communities – perhaps the most influential organization on these issues – is the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.  In 2005, while Republicans were in control of Congress, CQ Weekly ran an article about the center and its executive, Robert Greenstein, which is excerpted below:

Greenstein, who founded and runs the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal research organization, is not supposed to be a Washington power player.  He is a left-leaning Democrat in a capital controlled by Republicans.  He doesn’t have a PAC to influence lawmakers or loads of lobbying clout.  But he does have facts, and at a time when support for government social programs is dampened by GOP dominion over the levers of power, Greenstein and his organization have increased visibility by arming the minority Democrats.

He and his dedicated staff of budget wonks provide a powerful source of knowledge that helps out-of-power Democrats counter White House experts at the Office of Management and Budget.  That has earned Greenstein respect – sometimes grudging – from some majority Republicans.

… Greenstein’s staff of about 80 includes many analysts who previously worked for the Office of Management and Budget, the Congressional Budget Office and congressional committees.  “They have a point of view ..  but the core of the pieces has to be rock-solid analysis,” Greenstein said.  “No playing games.”

… “You may disagree with their policy recommendations and some of their conclusions, but you know their work is good,” said a Republican former House Budget Committee aide.

Greenstein’s group takes a multifaceted approach.  First, it gives its studies to policy makers to try to shape their views.  It feeds the same information to reporters and local newspaper editorial boards to try to bend public opinion – and in turn bring public pressure on lawmakers.  And it lends its legislative and technical expertise to lawmakers and aides when they want to craft policy options.

…  The center’s staff often knows more about the programs for low-income people than the lawmakers and aides who want to change the laws that govern them.  So the group’s help is often welcomed, even by Republicans.  “They have an incredible amount of technical expertise,” said Ed Lorenzen, a top aide to Democrat Charles W.  Stenholm of Texas when he served in the House.  “A lot of staff just have come to rely on them for information in helping understand the issues.”

Ellen Nissenbaum, the center’s Legislative Director, elaborated on the center’s strategy in a 1999 interview.

Even though members of Congress will often have anywhere from five to fifteen staff members working on issues, this staff is frequently overwhelmed.  In the course of a day they’re responsible for five, six, or seven major issues.  In many cases staff tend to be young or they may not have much experience in the issue.  In essence we sometimes find ourselves serving as “staff” to members of Congress and as “staff” to their staff.  We constantly provide technical support, answer questions, supply data.  Somebody will call up and say, what does this bill mean for my state? To the degree we can provide localized or state impact information, which isn’t often, we try to do that.  We are often asked by a member of Congress or their staff for our evaluation of legislation, or if we could recommend some modifications to change and improve it.

We often are translators.  We translate technical budget information for a general public audience.  Not only are we translating it, but we are constantly thinking about what are the most important points to bring forward and highlight.

We are very much in touch with a lot of academic researchers around the country on various issues: on tax policy, on health policy, on the minimum wage, on a variety of things.  Very often these academic researchers will write reports and the reports will never be read by an elected official.  They are too long, they are too complicated, they don’t necessarily reach a conclusion.  One of the things we do that’s most important is not necessarily promoting or providing our own work, but is helping to bring to the attention of policy makers very important research, again related to budget or poverty issues, in a way where we translate it.  We might even take someone else’s report, summarize it in three or four pages, highlight what the conclusions are, and then make it relevant to whatever the policy debate is at that time.  So I think serving as a bridge between elected officials and the research world, in terms of budget and poverty, is one of the more important things we do.  That then goes back to the point about where we really are translators.

This article is an excerpt from Patrick Lester, Leading from Below, Alliance for Children and Families: April 30, 2008.


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