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Excerpted from Associations Now, December 2013 to demonstrate the challenges that exist in government relations activities and how associations like CPNP can improve the odds of success.

Partisan. Challenging. Unpredictable. Gridlocked. These are just a few of the words used to describe the environment on Capitol Hill during the first year of the 113th Congress. In the 2013 legislative session, lawmakers managed to pass just 56 bills, allowed automatic budget cuts to take effect, and drove the federal government into a two-week partial shutdown. By comparison, the 112th Congress—previously thought to be the least productive ever—enacted 90 laws during its first year and, despite the threat of a shutdown, managed to avoid one.

Despite an uncharacteristic burst of bipartisanship that brought about a budget agreement in December, few believe the climate will shift significantly in year two. The current environment is both good and bad for associations and their government relations departments. Good, because less legislative activity means fewer potentially harmful pieces of legislation that require action. Bad, because getting bipartisan support for a bill that an association supports—in either chamber, let alone both—is practically impossible.

Shifting Focus

Because of this state of stagnation on the Hill, groups find themselves having to change their strategies in order to get things done and advance the association’s mission. Beyond Congress, there are three other areas where associations can push their agendas.

State governments. Things move faster at the state level. “The relationships really make a difference there. And talk about grassroots input—we’re seeing that 10 personal emails at the state level can make a huge amount of difference,” Showalter says. Overall, the process may take longer, having to work in all 50 states, but state-level advocacy can build momentum behind an issue and force action at the federal level, she notes.

Regulatory agencies. Especially during a period of extended gridlock, government relations departments can shift more of their attention to the thousands of pages of rules and regulations—both proposed and final—compiled in the Federal Register.

Successfully getting a rule changed might accomplish only half of what a full-blown piece of legislation would, but that’s still a mark in the win column.

Coalition building and grassroots. Downtime on the Hill presents an opportunity for associations to work on building relationships within their industry and beyond it, meeting and collaborating with groups that share the same vision on a policy issue.

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