U.S. President Joe Biden (3rd-R) talks to Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) (2nd-R) as Senate Majority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) (R) and Vice President Kamala Harris (L) look on after signing the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act as he is surrounded by lawmakers and members of his Cabinet during a ceremony on the South Lawn at the White House on November 15, 2021 in Washington, DC. The $1.2 trillion package will provide funds for public infrastructure projects including improvements to the country’s transportation networks, increasing rural broadband access, and projects to modernize water and energy systems. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
As negotiations on the contents of the Build Back Better legislation took place this summer and fall, outside advocacy groups weighed in with their priorities for this legislation. If these advocates want to have their causes continue to be considered by elected officials, however, they must expand their focus.
There was an uproar when Democrats could not get agreement to include such issues as giving Medicare the authority to negotiate prescription drug prices with pharmaceutical companies or paid family leave in the plan. After the initial exclusion of these issues from the draft bill, the Democratic Congressional leadership reconsidered and announced they would be a part of the package when the bill was considered in the House and Senate.
Advocacy groups cheered the news and immediately took credit for pressuring Democrats to reverse course to include drug price negotiation and paid family leave in the proposal (while saying little about unanimous Republican opposition to the entire bill).
The bill cleared the U.S. House on a party-line vote on Friday, but now must go to the narrowly divided U.S. Senate, where even one Democratic defection would doom the bill. The declaration of victory by advocacy groups may be premature.
Who are these groups advocating for improved social policies? The largest is AARP, a membership organization of those aged 50 and older (full disclosure – I worked for AARP in Pennsylvania for over 20 years). Others include advocates for those with specific diseases, such as the Alzheimer’s Association, and those pushing for improved equity and access to health care, such as the National Partnership for Women and Families.
Many of these organizations proclaim themselves to be “non-partisan” and don’t make political contributions or endorse candidates for public office.
Instead, they rely on pressure from their members and supporters to influence elected officials. But in our 2021 political world of bitter partisanship, gerrymandered congressional districts, and huge campaign war chests, the influence of constituent calls to elected leaders on issues like paid family leave or access to prescription drugs has diminished.
Today, party loyalty and campaign contributions are far more influential in determining the vote of a politician than what they hear from advocates.
Increasingly, how a legislator votes on an issue has a smaller and smaller impact on their re-election prospects. Few legislative districts are competitive in general elections and the financial advantage of incumbency makes any primary challenge a long-shot.
If advocacy groups truly want to influence the outcome of legislative debates, they must add two items to their agendas which in the long run will promote competitive elections focused on the issues they care about – campaign finance reform and good government initiatives, including the elimination of gerrymandering.
I have heard arguments from advocacy groups complaining they are not experts in these issues and support for election and governmental reform risks their non-partisan status.
But it is not necessary to be an expert in drawing congressional districts or campaign finance to advocate for policies to increase the power of voters at the expense of corporate and political party interests. Candidates will pay more attention to issues that voters care about if they aren’t able to run in a district with an overwhelming partisan advantage or scare away potential opponents because of huge financial advantages.
Advocating for competitive elections, where voters choose their representatives instead of representatives choosing their voters (which in essence is what gerrymandering has become) is a non-partisan issue. Both political parties practice extreme gerrymandering when they control the process in a state and both political parties are guilty of setting their highest priorities on campaign contributions.
Unfortunately, shifting our political system to focus on issues is not going to happen overnight in this era. More Americans need to understand how the current political landscape amplifies the voice of those with wealth and power while muffling the concerns of the majority of citizens.
Advocates that want to see improvements in the social issues they care about must face the reality they are not going to accomplish their goals unless our current political power structure is altered.
Advocacy organizations have the ability to educate their members about the importance of campaign finance reform and good government initiatives. They should utilize their resources to lead the effort to fix our broken political system instead of simply accepting the status quo.
A veteran government affairs professional, opinion contributor Ray E. Landis writes about the issues that matter to older Pennsylvanians. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may follow him on Twitter @RELandis.
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