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Legislating Change: The Power of Political Activism

This is the sixth and final article in a special six-part series commemorating the 50th anniversary of the National Club Association. This article from the August 1994 issue of Club Director addresses an issue at the heart of the National Club Association—legislative activism. Today, NCA offers new, interactive technology to connect members directly to their government representatives, allowing everyone to “Take Action” on the issues that matter most. Make sure your voice is heard by visiting NCA’s Legislative Action Center and clicking “Take Action” on our website,

One of the most effective methods of in­fluencing legislation at all levels of government is grass roots activity. This is a movement whereby members of associations become involved in the government relations process to win legislative contests. John Motley, a lobbyist for the National Federation of Independent Business, was quoted as saying, “I get listened to on the Hill because they know I have 600,000 small businessmen behind me back home.  The grass roots give me standing.” Members of trade associations are realizing that they need to sharpen their “grass roots skills,” an area once dominated by labor, consumer and environmental organizations, to protect their po­litical interests.

It has become increasingly evident that constituent communications with members of Congress, state legislators, and local officials drive the decisions made by lawmakers. The grass roots of an organization is that segment which is educated about legislative issues and is prepared to communicate its support or opposition to a given issue by phone calls, letters and visits with legislators. These are the “folks back home” who re­elect the lawmaker. 

According to lawmakers, constituent or grass roots mobilization, a lobbying activity which is on the rise, may be the most effective way to accomplish legislative goals. The National Club Association increases its clout with legislators not only by representing a great­er segment of the club community, but through the ac­tivism of that community.

The power of legislative communications is that they send clear messages to lawmakers. A historic example of a successful grass roots lobbying campaign took place in 1983. The campaign, considered to be one of the most effective, was prompted by a law that would have instituted tax withholding on interest and dividend income earned by individuals. An ef­fort against the law was spearheaded by bank lobbies, such as the American Bankers Association and the U.S. League of Savings Institutions. These groups and many banks placed ads in newspapers, placed posters in banks, and included inserts in monthly bank statements. The result was overwhelm­ing. More than 22 million people wrote to Congress urging a repeal of the with­holding law, which had passed only the year before. Elizabeth Kirby Hart, NCA’s vice president for legal and government relations, remembers the banking campaign. “At the time, I was managing government relations for a bank in California. I was very much involved in this campaign and can at­test to its effectiveness. During visits to Congress, I saw bags and bags of letters and postcards—all from constit­uents. Congressional representatives were inundated and were begging us to stop. The effect was overwhelming and served its purpose. The law was re­pealed, demonstrating that grass roots mobilization works.”

Another example of a winning grass roots effort is provided by the Nation­al Association of Letter Carriers. This association successfully used a tech­nique by which their members were asked to respond to “action alerts,” much like the legislative alerts that NCA’s government relations depart­ment uses. The alerts sent out to the members of the Letter Carriers Asso­ciation stimulated a flood of letters and phone calls to members of Con­gress. Using this technique they helped to defeat a Reagan administration plan to cap cost-of-living increases for re­tired postal workers.

NCA has similar constituent power with its membership. As an organiza­tion, NCA is smaller than the Ameri­can Bankers Association and other as­sociations. However, NCA can influ­ence legislation in the same manner. NCA’s political strength begins when its members inform legislators that clubs are, in fact, constituents in their districts and then educate them regard­ing issues of concern to clubs. When a legislative battle for private clubs aris­es, legislators know who the private club representative is—NCA.

NCA clubs have the potential to become more influential players in the lobbying process because they have a great deal of impact in the districts of their lawmakers. The private club in­dustry, represented by club officers, directors and managers, can help pre­serve the rights of private clubs and defeat legislation that burdens their everyday operation. It has become an economic necessity for the private club industry to become involved in the legislative process at the state and fed­eral level.

Understandably, becoming involved in politics seems a bit intimidating. However, it should always be remem­bered that the club director, officer or manager is a taxpayer, voter and an employer in the lawmaker’s district or home state. Elected officials work for voters. Also, club officials understand the issues affecting them better than lawmakers and have first-hand experi­ence to share with them. Club repre­sentatives can “personalize” the issues for their legislators.

When lawmakers consider a policy issue, what often matters to them is not the perception of how the general public feels about the issue, but whether there is a mobilized group of citizens who care intensely about the issue and are likely to act on their views. Therefore, the needs of constit­uents, particularly those who are local, are placed high on the legislators’ list of priorities since they are always con­cerned about election day.

Washington lobbyists are deeply in­volved in the communication process. They plan and implement strategies which, they hope, will influence a leg­islator’s decision. However, a lobbyist working without a dedicated and strong grass roots network is like a soldier sent into battle without any weapons. Grass roots efforts facilitate the lobbyist’s efforts. When letters or phone calls come into the legislator’s office, the role of the lobbyist is en­hanced, and access and influence is likely to be greater than normal.

For the private club industry, the purpose of pursuing a grass roots or “constituent mobilization” program is simple: to influence the decision-making process of local, state and fed­eral governments. NCA members benefit in two ways from grass roots activities. First, by becoming part of the political process NCA members help set the agenda of issues and positions. Political activism can empower the member by opening doors to legis­lators and government agencies.

Secondly, NCA members benefit from the association’s effective han­dling of issues. If the lobbying organi­zation combines its efforts with grass roots activities to stop legislation which could increase the club’s busi­ness expenses, an immediate value is received.

Some legislators will be unyielding in their position on an issue and will not change their views. However, a mobilized grass roots campaign may make them less outspoken in their opinion or willing to accept some modifications to a bill. Pressure from a home district may cause a lawmaker to abstain during a roll call vote on an issue.

To successfully communicate with lawmakers, private clubs need to arm themselves with facts and figures. It is imperative that club officials have information about their club such as the number of people it employs, the services it provides to the community, and the economic impact it has on the community. Legislators are always concerned about jobs, especially in their districts. This kind of informa­tion greatly increases the impact of a club’s communication with its representative.

Learn About the Issues That Affect Clubs

NCA’s Government Relations De­partment provides key information on legislation, regulations and current events influencing private clubs. NCA gathers up-to-the-minute information on leg­islation, analyzes it, and sends an alert to clubs, often the same day. This en­hanced service enables NCA member clubs to become active more quickly—thereby making a key difference on the issues that affect them. NCA can also identify lawmakers for clubs and tell members how to contact them.

Lawmakers prefer constituent con­tact such as letters, phone calls, and visits for all types of issues. Staff members also pay more attention to locally originated information on local issues than to general information sources on national issues.

Congressional staff interviews and surveys have been conducted to determine the effectiveness of a letter writ­ing campaign. Incoming mail is sorted and generally answered in the follow­ing priority:

  1.  Correspondence from corporate and other leaders in the community.
  2. Thoughtful, well-written letters from individual constituents.
  3. Single, typewritten letters that may look like they have been orchestrated.
  4. Mass letters on an issue.
  5. Postcards.

Also, lawmakers recognize that on many issues the seemingly spontane­ous mail pouring into their offices has been inspired by some lobbying office in Washington, D.C.

However, this does not mean they ignore it. In fact, electorally insecure legislators are increasingly responsive to these campaigns.

How Can Clubs Affect Change?

It doesn’t take a lot of time. Most of the work involves making a phone call or writing a letter. You also don’t need to be an expert on the issue at hand. You just need to explain your particu­lar situation in relation to an issue.

NCA’s publi­cation Affecting Legislative ChangeA Handbook for Private Clubs, offers some tips on effective constitu­ent communications:

When meeting with legislators:

  • Schedule a meeting in advance.
  • Keep in mind legislative staff are good contacts.
  • Arrive with a well-constructed position.
  • Remember, thank you notes and acknowledgments are important.
  • Follow up after the meeting.

When writing to legislators:

  • Be knowledgeable.
  • Strike while the iron is hot.
  • Identify and describe your concerns clearly.
  • Communicate in your own words.
  • Present the best argument.
  • Avoid using faxes, form letters, or pre-printed cards.
  • Use the proper format.

When communicating by telephone:

  • Know what you will say.
  • Refer to the legislation by bill number.
  • Follow up with a written letter.

Part of every legislator’s day is spent going through correspondence*, and although he or she can’t read every letter that comes in, the staff will summarize and even tabulate the sentiments ex­pressed. Congressional members watch the mail closely because their respon­siveness to their constituents affects their chances for re-election, and, even more simply, because it is part of their job. Letters do not usually make those with well-established positions switch sides, but they can be helpful in sway­ing opinion among fence-sitters. They can also bring to the attention of law­makers an issue which they had not previously considered. Equally impor­tant, the mail can help influence mem­bers of Congress before an issue has fully crystallized into legislation at the committee level. There are other effec­tive grass roots activities:

Sponsor a Fund Raiser for a Candidate in Your Area

Those who have supported a politi­cian financially or helped to sponsor fund-raising activities are in a better position to request support than those who haven’t. Lawmakers react to key people in their districts and states.

Volunteer in the District Office

Club representatives can volunteer to provide support in the district offic­es of lawmakers. It is beneficial for private club officials to get to know their representatives and senators and become well-acquainted with legisla­tors’ district office personnel.

Work on Campaigns

Participate in the electoral process and help a politician get elected. Vol­unteers are always needed to help out with mailings, make phone calls, or help distribute yard signs for candi­dates. This is an excellent opportunity to establish a relationship with a can­didate. Legislators never forget who helped put them in office.

Contribute to ClubPAC

On the national level, NCA makes contributions to candidates from its ClubPAC funds. ClubPAC was formed in 1982 as a way for individual club members to invest in political candidates supportive of the private club community. ClubPAC is the only legal mechanism for members of the private club community to make direct contributions to federal campaigns. These monies provide an opportunity for NCA to participate in the political process and enhance NCA’s value to member clubs in the government rela­tions area.

Whether the effort involves letters, phone calls, or personal contact, re­sults are achieved through constituent motivation or grass roots. When a leg­islator is undecided on how to vote on an issue, an industry can target him or her. Fewer than 100 letters from con­stituents can affect a member’s vote. When legislators know that behind each lobbyist lies a host of their mem­bers who can support or oppose them in the next election, an association’s credibility and ability to negotiate in­creases ten-fold.

Used effectively, grass roots put power in the hands of the private club industry. As a voting block, and especially as employers, private clubs can have a powerful voice in shaping the outcome of future legislation. NCA is here to work with you to provide the tools, information and confidence to accomplish effective legislative change.

* Today, written letters mailed to legislators on Capitol Hill undergo added security measures to screen for potential threats; therefore, electronic letters are a faster option for communicating with representatives.


Kelley Walker was NCA’s government relations analyst.

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