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Finds 'beltway phenomonon' exists, but all politics is local: boy from the west takes on Washington.

Salem, Oregon--To many of us in the West, Washington, D.C. is so distant that it seems illusory.

After my one month assignment with NLC's Office of Policy and Federal Relations, I've discovered that it isn't distance that leads to the sense of unreality. Rather, it's the vague sense of deja vu coupled with the scale of the federal legislative process.

There are, of course, other reasons, but why use this article to intrude on media turf when they seem to be having enough fun for all of us?

When I first arrived in Washington, I admit that I felt a bit overwhelmed. Here I was in the most powerful capital in the Western World. It had always seemed so immense and complex from my vantage point in the West.

There are some very real and practical aspects to this perception. There are, for example, several Congressional committees which have more members than serve in the entire Oregon Senate. It is a "different" place and I had no idea if the lobbying strategies which I used in Salem would be at all relevant in Washington, D.C.

However, I shortly discovered that there is little fundamental difference between lobbying city issues in the state capitol or in the national capitol. Admittedly, I only tested this conclusion for a four week period last September.

The bulk of my NLC responsibilities focused on amending the Senate version of the Defense Appropriations Bill to require the Department of Defense to transfer the property of closed military bases to the adjacent "host" city. The details of that effort could comprise--and might be more accurately told--if they served as a basis for a Tom Clancy novel--or perhaps a Hunter Thompson expose.

Nevertheless, the experience did allow me to draw some general conclusions about the NLC lobby staff and the "Washington scene."

First of all, the NLC lobby staff. They're extremely professional and delightful individuals.

They made sure that, by the time I left Washington in early October, I had an understanding of the political/governmental environment and an appreciation of Washington as a stimulating, enjoyable city. The former enriched my professional life; the latter my personal life.

I also discovered that their professional activities in Washington essentially mirror what we do in our state capitals.

NLC lobbyists staff league policy committees and write articles about current legislative and other federal issues. They lobby the federal legislature and attend federal agency briefings and argue for a reasonable interpretation of the relevant law when regulations are drafted.

They help put together annual conferences and feign interest during their boss' staff meetings in the same way that my Oregon colleagues do in mine.

Their lobbying approaches are fundamentally similar as well. They know the political dynamics of the issues they lobby and they use local officials and state league officials to provide both specific impact data and the "political muscle" necessary to prevail on an issue. They identify other parties which will be affected by a particular legislative proposal and build coalitions.

In fact, they do the same thing we do--although, the scale is so immense that their job appears impossible. (Those state league lobbyists who have ever been frustrated by a colleague who gets to the fax machine just before they do have no idea what a five page action-alert to 49 state leagues can do to your day..... Can't the board buy those people another fax machine?...! I also drew some conclusions about the Washington political scene which, though not startling, are illuminating. The first was that issues don't stop at state lines.

As part of my orientation, the NLC federal relations director sent me with Janet Quist and representatives of the coalition she had put together, to visit with legislative staff of the members of the House Judiciary Committee which would shortly be considering the addition of a Police Officer Bill of Rights to the Omnibus Crime Bill.

I was particularly interested in this issue because my league was a major actor in the defeat of a similar bill in the Oregon Legislature in both of our last two sessions.

Clearly, interest groups recognize that there is more than one forum to work in. The proponents of the Police Officer Bill of Rights are not the only interest group to recognize this. Battles over specific issues which are lost at the state legislative level can be fought anew at the congressional level and vice versa.

Had NLC's efforts not been successful, months of work by city officials and lobbyists in Oregon and other states, as well, would have been negated by a simple end-run.

The second conclusion I reached is that the "beltway phenomenon" exists and is a significant obstacle to realistic and effective legislation. City officials are often frustrated when they encounter the lack of legislative understanding about how things really work in their communities.

That lack of understanding is, with few exceptions, exponentially greater in Congress. There are, no doubt, several reasons for this.

However, since this isn't a political science tutorial, let me cut to the chase.... If local officials don't let NLC lobbyists and their congressional representatives know what the impacts of proposed legislation will be in their communities, they have no reason to expect that favorable, or even tolerable, legislation will develop.

In many, if not most cases, Congress is prepared to amend legislation to eliminate unintended consequences. But members have to know what those consequences are. NLC staff have a clear understanding of the generic impacts of legislative proposals, but the circumstances--and therefore the impacts--in each community are different.

Just as at the state level, if you don't tell your lobbyists and your legislators what your specific problem is, you can't expect your situations to be considered.

For state league and local officials, I divined a clear message from my month with the NLC. The skills that you use to effect legislation in your state capital are the same skills needed to effect federal legislation.

You can count on the NLC lobbyists to provide policy analysis and the lobbying skills required to be effective in Washington. But all politics is local and only your active response to requests for information about potential impacts in your community, your efforts to build local coalitions and your calls to your Congressional delegation will lead to success.

The NLC is interested in continuing its staff exchange program and I encourage other state league lobbyists to participate.

My thanks for a memorable experience to my friends at the NLC and the state league and local officials who responded when I called.

Phillip Fell is senior staff associate and legislative director of the League of Oregon Cities.
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Author:Fell, Philip
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Date:Dec 23, 1991
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