How to leverage the 'lame duck' to advance your policy objectives

Depending on your views, any executive actions or new regulations will serve as a means to define the administration either as overreaching and requiring Congressional action to block bad policies, or as taking the necessary steps in the absence of legislation passed by Congress.

With the 2014 midterm elections over and Republican control of both chambers now a political reality, attention has turned to the lame-duck session in Congress.

No longer a period of post-election transition and housekeeping affairs in Washington following an election cycle, recent lame-duck sessions have become highly politicized events. There’s a great deal of back and forth about how active this lame duck will be, but one thing is guaranteed, whatever regulatory or legislative activity that does come down the pike will set the tone and agenda for the next Congress and the final years of the Obama administration.

Having your public affairs strategy in place ahead of any public-policy battle is crucial in making sure your organizational objectives become shared priorities of policymakers and key government decision makers. The ability to quickly capitalize on opportunities, or mitigate threats, depends on your ability to influence issues and attention early and effectively. While this lame duck could be limited in terms of "must pass" legislative priorities (appropriations, nominees, tax extenders, etc.), there is speculation the Obama administration could use this period to take sweeping executive actions and issue major regulatory rules that the Republican majority-elect is not yet in a position to defeat.

For instance, last week, the president announced his executive order on immigration that spared more than 4 million undocumented immigrants from deportation.

Depending on your views, any executive actions or new regulations will serve as a means to define the administration either as overreaching and requiring Congressional action to block bad policies, or as taking the necessary steps in the absence of legislation passed by Congress. 

Out of all of this, one thing is certain: the days of relying on shoe leather lobbying alone to affect lame-duck sessions have come and gone. Today’s highly politicized debates require integrated public affairs strategies, inclusive of lobbying as a component, but surrounded by a host of earned, social, and paid media, as well as grassroots and grasstops vehicles to create viable political opportunities and consequences.

Furthermore, engagement in the lame duck is not limited to immediate issues of debate, but also a means to condition the environment leading into the subsequent session of Congress. And with political control shifting to the Republicans, it is more important than ever to engage on both immediate lame-duck debates, as well as outbound ones, to elevate your organization’s objectives as priority issues. This includes using near-term legislative vehicles, Congressional hearings, and confirmation hearings to educate and secure support from targeted policymakers, but also to establish separate awareness and engagement campaigns to impact future debates in the next Congress.

When preparing to engage during the lame duck, it’s important to develop high-impact content that is at the ready before any activity on your issue occurs. This includes drafting opinion-editorials ahead of time, making sure your digital content is prepared, and possibly creating a dormant microsite that can be switched on when needed.

Ad hoc and formal coalitions are an effective tactic in elevating issues within a diverse set of constituencies and various spheres of influence. It’s critical to begin developing a team of aligned outside voices early to credibly and effectively support and deliver your message. Sometimes these are aligned across industries and sometimes along ideological lines, and sometimes both.

Lame duck activity can and should be leveraged, but it requires a great deal of strategy development and campaign prep work beforehand. Doing so will eliminate much of the scramble that happens during rapid response situations, as well as lay the groundwork for your advocacy campaigns over the coming years.

And let’s not forget, with the 2016 elections just around the corner, your activities will serve as a blueprint for the next lame-duck session.

Kelsey Zahourek is a director at The Herald Group, based in Washington, DC. Find her on Twitter at @kelseyzahourek.

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