Tina Richards has an idea. Tina is the mother of a Marine scheduled for his third tour of duty in Iraq who took on Rep. David Obey (Dem., Wisconsin) and the Democratic leadership over funding for the war. Though her home is Missouri, she’s in the process of moving to the Washington, D.C. area to keep up the fight to end the war. Her idea is simple. Bring 10,000 concerned citizens to Washington this summer to lobby their Congressional representatives and counter the ten thousand paid lobbyists who ensure that ours is the most lavishly financed and most seriously immune to change legislature in the world.
If realized, Tina’s idea has the potential to revolutionize politics on Capitol Hill. Not just because it will bring enormous public pressure to bear around a single issue of pressing national importance. That has happened before. More important, it will provide a new model for citizen lobbying that Washington sorely needs.
In personal style, Tina is respectful, humble and forthright. She just wants members of Congress to know what she feels and how important ending the war is to her. But Tina is not afraid to embarrass those members of Congress who stand in the way of change, and in particular the Democratic Party leadership, those who should be "on her side." In this respect, Tina’s model of citizen lobbyist stands in stark contrast to what has passed for public interest lobbying over the last thirty years.
Public interest lobbying grew out of the political movements of the sixties, but it quickly ceased to be movement politics–masses of citizens besieging government for change. Instead, the women’s and environmental and peace movements spawned permanent lobbying organizations, mostly headquartered in the capitol, dedicated to monitoring the spate of new laws that Congress passed in response to new public demands and expanding their reach through close attention to what went on in the labyrinths of Congress and the federal bureaucracy.
The new lobbyists soon came to model much of their style on the old–with the major exception that the vast majority of them did not have campaign contributions to throw around. As 501(c)3 tax-exempt "charitable" organizations, they could not support candidates or donate money to campaigns in the way that corporations, trade and professional associations, and PAC’s can. But in style they resemble their special interest counterparts. They nurture ties with Congress people and their staffs, provide them with the latest information and legislative proposals favorable to their cause, sit in on Congressional hearings and sometimes contribute to them, and work with legislators to protect and enlarge their legislative gains. They operate as NGO’s, more or less autonomous, subscription and grant funded, professional organizations, many of them with little to no effort to mobilize the grass-roots around their campaigns. And even those that do mobilize grass-roots support use calibrated petition and call-in campaigns, rarely if ever bothering to give ordinary citizens a say in their platforms or priorities.
In periods of conservative hegemony, which is most of the last thirty years, the public interest lobbying groups have mostly been on the defensive; but they have been able to claim a few victories. Key to their success, they insist, both in staving off reversals and achieving occasional advances, are the relationships they have built on Capitol Hill and in the bureaucracy. And key to those relationships is a willingness to accept the political logic that drives members of Congress. The result, at its best, is incremental change for the better–and a gradual erosion, over the last thirty years, of even the limited gains these movements achieved in the 1970’s.
The caution of the public interest groups is well-placed. Congress people do not like being embarrassed, as Tina Richards found when she posted a video on YouTube of Representative Obey berating her for suggesting that it might be time to cut the funding for the war in Iraq. Obey was forced to apologize publicly, but he, and then Speaker Pelosi, refused to meet with her. She achieved national coverage of her campaign but was cut off from the Democratic leadership. A disaster for the public interest lobby, but Tina doesn’t see it that way. If the leadership won’t talk, then the leadership deserves to be embarrassed, and the public pressure the incident wrought has been enormous.
This is the core of citizen lobbying. With no stake in a "relationship" that pays off, at best, in dribs and drabs, the citizen lobbyist can bring pressure to bear that no public interest group can mobilize. Citizen lobbying thus has the potential to make Congressional representatives accountable well in advance of elections. Disgruntled citizen lobbyists can return to their home districts determined to mount challenges to incumbents who haven’t lived up to their promises. They can awaken sympathy for causes that the wider public has viewed up to this point only through the distorting lenses of the mainstream media. And they can break into that closed media world through dramatic refusals to take no for an answer.
That’s the potential of Tina Richards’ idea. It will take real effort to bring 10,000 citizens to Washington this summer and train them to confront lawmakers. And it will take even more effort to turn this idea into a permanent vehicle for transforming relations between ruled and rulers into something resembling democracy. But the idea is powerful, and it is gathering steam …..
MICHAEL FOLEY is Associate Professor of Politics, Catholic University of America. He is the author of many articles on agrarian politics and the "new peasant movement" in Mexico, civil society and the peace process in El Salavador, and "social capital". He is currently co-director of the Religion and the New Immigrants project, a Pew sponsored Gateway Cities project examining the role of faith communities for new immigrants. Recent publications include articles on civil society and social capital in the Journal of Democracy and in the Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs, and Social Capital, Religious Institutions and Poor Communities with John D. McCarthy and Mark Chaves.. With Bob Edwards, he co-edited two special issues of American Behavioral Scientist and a book Beyond DeToquville: Civil Society and the Social Capital Debate in Comparative Perspective.