Communication is everything: refining your message for a new Congress

Dan Jensen
Government Affairs Manager
APWA Washington Office

After one of the most tumultuous election cycles in history, the democrats have returned to power in the United States Congress after a twelve-year absence. After the polls closed on November 7, the new balance of power showed democrats in the House with a 32-seat advantage, and a two-seat lead in the Senate. So how will this change affect public works, and more specifically, emergency management?

To answer such a weighted question, we must first look at the new committee leaders in the House and Senate who will be setting the emergency management legislative agenda over the next two years, and then we must examine the role public works professionals must play in the coming months to ensure this new Congress continues to recognize the efforts made by our profession in the field of emergency response and management, homeland security and infrastructure protection.

In the House Committee on Homeland Security, the Chairmanship gavel will move from the hands of Rep. Peter King (R-NY) to Bennie Thompson (D-MS). Among incoming Chairman Thompson's first-stated priorities will be to increase cargo and port security, increase funding for rail and mass transit systems, and increase funding for first responders. He has also noted that he expects the committee to increase its oversight of the Department of Homeland Security. Since it has only been a few weeks since the election, an official committee position has not been taken. However, it is clear from Mr. Thompson's remarks that it will be as critical as ever for public works to be involved in educating Congress on the role we play in emergency management to ensure that we are included in any future funding decisions for first responders.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will fall under the leadership of Rep. James Oberstar (R-MN), a longtime friend of public works, while current Chairman Don Young (R-AK) will move into the role of Ranking Member. Like his counterpart on the Homeland Security Committee, Mr. Oberstar has stated his desire to focus on and upgrade security at the nation's port facilities. Traditionally, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has been one of the most bipartisan in Congress, and Mr. Oberstar has expressed his desire to maintain that tradition.

In the Senate, Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) will be replacing Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) as Chairman of the Homeland Security Committee. Senator Lieberman has pledged to continue the committee's strong dedication to first responders, and is expected to work in a bipartisan manner with the House. Both Senators Lieberman and Collins remain committed to public works professionals.

With the new congressional leadership in place, it will be more important than ever for public works professionals to become more engaged in the legislative process—both here in Washington and at home. The APWA Government Affairs staff is constantly looking for members who want to become more engaged in this process. It is through our members that we are most effective in communicating the legislative priorities faced by public works professionals. Elected officials need to hear from the experts in the field. Now, with a new Congress eager to show its dedication to emergency management, we have a unique opportunity to reach those newly-elected legislators and educate them on the need for greater funding, training and recognition of public works professionals and the roles they play in emergency management.

The first step in influencing your elected officials is to educate them. This can be done in several different ways. You can arrange a meeting between yourself or your organization and the elected officials. This is beneficial because it gives you a chance to communicate your concerns or suggestions in a personal atmosphere, allowing you to cultivate friendships that might benefit your cause in the future. Another popular way to educate your legislators is to invite them to tour a public works facility. This has the advantage of giving them a memorable experience in which they can learn about the role of public works in a very personal and direct way.

The second step in this process is to maintain an open line of communication with your elected officials so that you can keep them apprised of your concerns and needs as they relate to ever-changing legislation and regulations. Not having this open line of communication can be extremely costly should disaster ever strike your area. For example, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, many Gulf State communities were left scrambling for access to their federal legislators. Those with prior relationships were able to more effectively communicate their concerns to Congress and the federal agencies responsible for cleanup and reimbursement.

Finally, the last step in cultivating such relationships is to keep the APWA Government Affairs team in Washington updated on your activities. We may be able to provide you with additional resources, suggestions and insight that may help you and your community. Additionally, APWA is often contacted directly by elected officials looking for members who are experts in particular areas of emergency management. These members have been asked to testify on Capitol Hill, or to simply provide Congress with information about specific areas or projects. It is always helpful for us in Washington to expand our network of members who are interested in participating in the legislative process.

In the coming months as the new congressional leadership seeks to assert itself in the world of emergency management, it is more critical than ever for us to assert our own presence on Capitol Hill, so that we can keep members of Congress educated on how public works provides a critical service as a first responder. Please visit the APWA Government Affairs website at www.apwa.net/advocacy for more information on how you can become more involved—both locally and nationally—in ensuring that the voice of public works is heard loud and clear among those responsible for setting policy and regulation.

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me at djensen@apwa.net or at (202) 408-9541.