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A Guide to Maneuvering Political Gridlock: From Stagnation to Success

by Joshua Habursky, Deputy executive director and chief lobbyist, Premium Cigar Association (PCA)

Best practices for organizations to effectively operate amid legislative gridlock.

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Amid a peak in partisanship, domestic political animosity, and an overall challenging political landscape, it’s more difficult than ever for lobbyists and advocacy professionals to get things done. This issue isn’t limited to Democrats vs. Republicans — there are many examples of interparty conflict that stymie legislative policymaking at the state and federal levels.

Despite the challenges, the show must go on. The advocacy and lobbying community still needs to focus on getting legislation across the finish line, presenting results, and proving ROI to their organizations, trade groups, and associations. In these times, playing defense and preventing action is easier than advancing positive legislation, and most advocacy organizations should have identified their supporters or blocs of legislators to prevent problematic action.

The new norm of legislating is typically a small group of people trying to get the best deal possible for their side at the eleventh hour. This can be a frustrating prospect for organized government affairs and advocacy professionals that like to create detailed plans ahead of time and work off a traditional calendar with the expectation that deadlines will be met. In recent years, deadlines are constantly moving in Washington just as often as principled “lines in the sand” move on policy matters.

Read on to explore five best practices for organizations to effectively operate in this political landscape given this variety of challenges.

1. Build Resources and Coalitions

There should be no “downtime” or “recess” in advocacy and lobbying. You are either in a legislative battle or should be preparing for one. In slower periods of time, like the summer months, it is prudent to focus on creating content, fostering stakeholder communications, benchmarking advocacy resources, surveying stakeholders for communications preferences, and joining coalitions or network with like-minded organizations.

Advocacy teams should always be ready for gridlock to subside and the short window of policymaking to open. Preparation and practice are crucial elements of successful advocacy and lobbying. By maintaining operational effectiveness, you won’t be caught off guard and will be able to rapidly respond to the evolving legislative landscape. The legislative process can move at a snail’s pace, but it can also jump to lightspeed.

2. Focus on Information and Educational Outreach

Effective lobbyists and advocacy professionals are constantly “soft selling” their issues and organization. Direct asks should be limited and always preceded by a buildup of goodwill and mutual cooperation. Sharing information and providing educational outreach on issues that include tailored data and analysis is extremely helpful for legislators.

By hosting events that focus on information sharing and education, you can bring people together from across the aisle. These events should be policy-oriented, but a social element is key. Successful organizations can facilitate positive interactions that bring ideologically diverse elected officials together to find common ground. Cultivating relationships through events will prepare your team for critical legislative moments in a subtle way that turns the temperature down on contested issues.

3. Monitor Timing

Advocacy professionals shouldn’t go into campaigning with the mindset of something getting passed in regular order. Expect delays, shifting timelines, and some unanswered calls and emails during the peak of an advocacy campaign. At this point, gridlock is a constant even during “must-pass” periods. This ensures a deliberative process where the public and a variety of stakeholders can weigh in.

Once you’ve built a content library, coalitions, and educational resources, the next step is to have a pulse for timing and monitoring activity. This is more art than science of knowing when to deploy your campaign (and when not to). The wrong approach that fails to consider timing can lead to even more gridlock and stagnation. Timing is a key element to success and failure.

4. Leverage Legislative to Executive

Use your Congressional allies to solicit information and administrative action. A letter from a Congressional office or committee can have a lot more weight than one from a standalone advocacy organization. This can be a good information request tool and a way to prod for activity if there is a delay. Administrative agencies in the executive branch can provide additional information to Congress, helping you garner attention for your issue and prompt movement.

5. Expand Your Issues Portfolio

If you’re struggling to get traction on an important issue or must advocate for a particularly polarizing or contentious issue that is rife with gridlock, pivot to another issue or expand your issues portfolio to something where you can find common ground. You’ll be able to revisit your main priority, but with more allies and a demonstrated track record of collaboration.

Accept incremental victories and don’t be afraid to compromise and negotiate when necessary. If you are completely uncompromising, you are contributing to gridlock and the set of challenges plaguing legislative bodies. You cannot have a set of expectations for elected officials that you do not adhere to also. With an expanded issues portfolio, it’s easier to compromise on secondary issues rather than your dominant priority.

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