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An association executive on the Hill.

Wyoming Senator Craig Thomas, CAE, comments on public policy, association management, and the current session of Congress.

For the past several terms, the association community has had one of its own serving on Capitol Hill. Senator Craig Thomas, CAE (R-WY), former general manager of the Wyoming Rural Electric Association, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1989 and served as Wyoming's lone representative until his election to the Senate in 1994.

During his career in Congress, Senator Thomas has made valuable use of his 14 years of experience as an association executive and understands from both perspectives how the government and associations interact. In 1995, ASAE honored Thomas with the Beacon Award in recognition of his efforts on behalf of the association community. It's from his unique position as legislator and former association executive that Thomas offered his thoughts in an interview last spring.

Boege: Senator Thomas, how do elected officials view associations and association executives?

Thomas: Most elected officials see associations in several ways. One, we see them as a source of reliable and accurate information - especially background and technical information focused on specific issues.

Of course, many associations are advocates for certain points of view. From time to time, those views may be different from those of the elected official. . . . On balance, elected officials understand that lobbyists are the messengers of a constituency. They bring us a consensus view of things from the industry's or profession's viewpoint.

Boege: When you hear from Wyoming associations, do you know the players behind the names?

Thomas: Oh yes, and I should add that Wyoming has had over the years some exceptionally good associations working for their members. While we may have a small number of people - less than half a million people in our whole state - we are very well-organized.

While associations are generally small in Wyoming, they still perform all of the functions that larger groups do elsewhere. I meet with association executives very often, and I enjoy working with all associations - not only those with whom I agree but also those with whom I don't agree.

Boege: How has your perspective on associations changed since you crossed over into public service?

Thomas: When you're an association executive, your goals and duties are to help form an organization and to cause that organization to be an effective representative for its members. In the U.S. Senate, I think that you change your perspective a little. You may see an association not only as a source of information but even as a source of support for points of view that you share.

I find most associations to be very professionally represented. The professionals in the group know how to do what they do, and they do it in a professional way.

Boege: Do you think that members of Congress understand the role that associations play in developing public policy, in advocacy, and in providing information needed to make decisions?

Thomas: There's a pretty good understanding of it. Most associations are well-organized and prepared to argue their cases.

I don't know that everybody (including congressional staff) understands the processes that [associations] go through, and I have to say, too, that I'm not sure always that associations are given the credit for the kinds of policy developments that they do, but by and large associations are well-known here and they are, for the most part, probably the strongest voices.

Now, one of the drawbacks to having an effective voice is that those who don't agree with you - especially the media - tend to emphasize that you are a special interest and that that is somehow bad.

Boege: Point well-taken, Senator. In fact, many ASAE members are concerned that words like special Interest are used to stigmatize associations, their lobbyists, and their members and to convince the average citizen that lobbying and advocacy activities are Irrelevant or harmful. Have ASAE's members exaggerated this perception?

Thomas: No, I think it's probably true [that associations are being stigmatized]. What we need to do is understand that those who represent groups that are not in the business sector - and this even includes people who call themselves journalists - are inclined to call everyone who is in business seeking to make a profit a special interest.

Boege: So, is this more of a public relations problem, or is there real substance beneath the complaint? What can we do to change this image?

Thomas: I don't have a good answer. I have a few ideas that address some pieces of the puzzle. Try to make sure that a constituent carries the message to the elected official. Members of Congress prefer to communicate with somebody who is a constituent or at least a resident of the home state. This is especially true of national organizations. While I think their professional staff can be very helpful in terms of information, when you come down to seeking to influence a member's position or a member's vote, I think it's important that the messenger come from the constituency.

This helps achieve a dual purpose. As an elected official, I am able to not only talk to a voter, but I am also communicating with a representative from the organization.

Boege: Do you have any concerns when a constituent from Wyoming who is also a member of a national association contacts you about broader national issues?

Thomas: No, I don't think so. What is troublesome from time to time is when somebody comes in carrying a sheet of paper that comes from their organization and the document is more of a sales pitch than fact-based. What we need are materials based on objective facts, especially what effects a given policy may have on this person in his or her hometown. Slanted materials, or worse, will really kill your presentation in a hurry. Worse, it erodes you and your organization's credibility.

Boege: What are some pointers you can give regarding congressional visits?

Thomas: People who come to see the member of Congress ought to, if possible, be from [the member's] constituency.

Second, prepare your visitors competently and thoroughly. You can tell in a minute if the person who has come to your office has just been to a 30-minute briefing. . . . Too often they end up by saying, "Well, I don't know why this is, but that's what the executive vice president told us this morning."

They need more information than that; they need a little bit of background - or education. Then of course, hopefully, they will let you know they're coming in advance and make some time so that you can have a serious conversation.

And frankly, as a part of your strategy, you should try to make your presentation broad enough so that I can understand what kind of impact it may have on my state or my hometown or the people I represent.

Boege: What are some of the more effective techniques in communicating with you?

Thomas: A personal visit is the most effective - that is, a personal visit from somebody who's really prepared to discuss the issue. Of course, there are other ways to do that. All of us have offices in our home states. I think people who are interested in issues there can develop a relationship with the person in that state office. Remember, our field staff send in reports and they come to us as well.

The least effective thing to do is send us form letters. Some of them are so canned that they simply put your name in on the top and sign it at the bottom. We respond to such items, but they are much less effective than more personal communications.

Another key to effectiveness for associations is to develop a relationship with me and my staff. We quite often deal with associations, especially . . . as a source of information. This is not just a once a year thing, during a congressional visit. The fact is that groups that we really work with cultivate an ongoing relationship with us. Our staff may call them with questions, requests for professional advice, industry data, etc. Don't forget, we need some professional advice from people who are more familiar with the reality we are trying to legislate.

Let me just make the caveat that any information you provide us needs to be as sound as it can be. Once you get a little information from someone that is padded, or lacks credibility - well, you don't go back there.

Boege: How have your association management skills helped you with your duties?

Thomas: Association management skills and the duties of an elected official are very much related. In an association, you seek to get the views of your members. In the Senate, you seek to get the views of your constituents. As an association executive you try to bring people together to some kind of conclusion that is reasonably acceptable to all of your membership. Frankly, you also try to do that here, and we call it consensus.

In an association you serve properly as an advocate for some ideas and some principles. Hopefully, that is also the case in the U.S. Senate.

Boege: Are there ways in which you think Congress can help strengthen associations?

Thomas: Congress should simply provide an opportunity for associations to accomplish their public policy missions with as little government meddling as possible. Associations are a function of democracy and the democratic system. People should have the opportunity to join together to represent common interests. That's very basic.

There ought not to be obstacles in the way of people coming together. For example, the lobby tax and other kinds of lobbying restrictions could very well make it difficult for people to represent their own views within the organization or to represent the organization's views to elected officials. That's wrong.

We have to be careful that we understand that a special freedom we do have is to join together voluntarily to represent common views. I think the role that government ought to play is to ensure that that opportunity is available without obstacles.

Boege: What do you think about the lobby tax, and will it be repealed anytime soon?

Thomas: Well, I think it's a bad idea and that it will be difficult to repeal. I think it's also very difficult to enforce and that we'll have to see what impact it has on behavior before we do much. Even so, I still say that government should not make it more difficult for people to represent themselves.

Boege: How might other tax proposals affect associations and other nonprofit organizations?

Thomas: The question of nonprofit tax reform is up in the air. We probably will end up with reform in which we will continue taxing unrelated business income, but encourage a strong nonprofit sector overall.

Boege: How do you see the 104th Congress and its place in history?

Thomas: That is a difficult one . . . . I think this Congress came about as a result of voters and citizens of this country saying, "We want a change in the way the federal government functions. It's too expensive, it's too large, and we're overregulated." . . . This Congress has been the turning point in terms of cutting runaway spending and entitlements, in terms of [reducing] the size of the federal government, arid in terms of moving [responsibility] back to the local government.

This Congress has proposed fundamental changes, and I don't think you can expect those to happen in a very short while. . . . Now, instead of talking about how much more are we going to spend in the budget, we're talking for the first time in 25 years about how are we are going to balance the budget. And we have a serious opportunity to do that.

In the end, a sustainable number of things will be done during this session. We will deal with things like liability reform, welfare reform, balancing the budget, and regulatory reform - perhaps other things as well. President Clinton can veto all of these changes at his own peril. What matters is that it was this Congress in which fundamental basic changes were made in America's direction and to our nation's benefit.

Robert S. Boege is ASAE's vice president of government affairs.
COPYRIGHT 1996 American Society of Association Executives
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Title Annotation:Sen. Craig Thomas
Author:Boege, Robert S.
Publication:Association Management
Article Type:Interview
Date:Aug 1, 1996
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