Power Shift Spurs Lobbyists To Rethink Strategies

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For decades, education lobbyists and other advocates for children's programs have relied on powerful Democrats to defend, fund, and improve federal education and social-service programs.

But the ascendency of Republicans to dominance of Capitol Hill has so shifted the locus of power that these groups have been forced to rethink their lobbying strategies.

"We're certainly not operating from a base of assumptions that is more characteristic of Democratic leadership," said Michael Resnick, the senior associate executive director of the National School Boards Association.

"A lot of people are trying to find their roles in new relationships," said Gerald Morris, the director of legislation for the American Federation of Teachers. "For us, it's something we're trying to sort out as we go along."

Meanwhile, conservative activists say that they are finding access easier with the Republicans in power and that they expect to be more influential.

"The people who hadn't called us in the past for advice and ideas are now calling us," said Allyson Tucker, the director of the Heritage Foundation's Center on Educational Law and Policy.

Indeed, when Ralph Reed, the executive director of the Christian Coalition, pledged last week to "launch the largest single lobbying effort in our history," his agenda included the elimination of the Education Department and federal funding for vouchers.

A Local Message

But education and child-welfare advocates are forging more indirect strategies, including:

  • Introducing the massive cadre of freshman Republicans to the virtues of federal education and child-welfare programs--some of which they have pledged to cut.

Delores DaCosta, the director of governmental affairs for the National Head Start Association, said, for example, that lawmakers may not be so willing to include Head Start in a proposed welfare block grant when they learn that parents play a key policymaking role in the program.

Such member-education efforts are also being pursued by groups whose agendas are more aligned with the new majority. For example, while many new members may be "predisposed" to supporting private school vouchers, said Joyce McCray, the executive director of the Council for American Private Education, "their need to be educated [about the issue] is clearly what we're finding."

  • Recharging their grassroots networks in an effort to demonstrate the effectiveness of programs at the local level.

Organizations from the National Food Service Association to the American Association of State Colleges and Universities have stepped up such efforts.

Such tactics are nothing new, lobbyists say, but they have become especially important with Republicans who say they are more interested in what folks back home think about government programs than the views of bureaucrats and lobbyists here.

"The credibility of lobbyists inside the [Washington] Beltway is not high," said Mr. Morris of the a.f.t. "For [the Republican majority] to put some credence in what we have to say, it must come from the local level."

  • Choosing their battles wisely.

"We have to take a fresh look at the issues--what really counts, what really makes a difference," Mr. Morris said.

In the past, he said, some lobbyists tended to automatically look askance at Republican proposals. For example, he said, had the G.O.P. introduced its "Contract With America" a year ago, education lobbyists might have opposed it without critical analysis.

Now, lobbyists are examining specific pieces. The union, for example, opposes a balanced-budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but it supported a measure, approved by Congress this month, to apply all laws Congress passes to the body itself.

Education groups have split on a bill that is intended to limit unfunded federal mandates, with the N.S.B.A. supporting the measure and such other organizations as the Children's Defense Fund and the Council for Exceptional Children opposing it.

Meanwhile, with cuts to education spending on the table, some say it is important for the education lobby to identify its most important programs.

"The way you oppose massive budget changes is not by looking categorically," said Arnold F. Fege, the director of governmental relations for the National pta. "The real question is: Can the education advocates agree on three or four or five big-engine programs?...The jury's still out."

But that suggestion may not sit well with the Committee for Education Funding, which has always--at least publicly--declined to endorse particular programs over others.

The C.E.F., a coalition of 100 or so organizations, has a tremendous task ahead because budget and appropriations legislation are expected to drive many programmatic changes. And much of that agenda is still being kept under wraps by the G.O.P. leadership.

Complicating matters for the C.E.F. is the recent departure of its long-time executive director, Susan Frost, who has taken a job with the Education Department.

Ms. Frost, who was with C.E.F. for 12 years, is credited with raising the lobby's visibility by helping hold the coalition together and by honing her skills at dissecting the budget process.

In particular, C.E.F. members say, Ms. Frost was adept at discerning how broad budgetary decisions could affect education financing.

"Susan basically assumed the collective voice," said Michael Edwards, the interim director of government relations for the National Education Association. "But she became more than a spokesperson. She became the institution."

Edward R. Kealy, the new executive director of the C.E.F., is a veteran lobbyist for the N.S.B.A.

Vol. 14, Issue 18

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