March is the month in which South Carolina celebrates Legislative Action at the State Capitol. The activities are meant to recognize the role played by advocates in helping allocate resources that promote the health and safety of our communities. A significant portion of these advocates are either parents or members of layman organizations that are concerned about the health, education and accommodations needed by their children. In this blog I will summarize the ways by which these advocates have been able to work with legislators in order to achieve their aims.
First of all, please realize that legislators are human beings that want to do the right thing. They usually have a professional background in law, business, education, but rarely an MD. In South Carolina, we only have 1 physician in the entire general assembly of 124 elected officials. Legislators most therefore rely on anecdotal personal experience in order to educate themselves, especially in complicated topics like health-related issues. The important teaching point here is: legislators depend on what their constituents and professionals tell them. This means that when you talk to them, you don’t have to provide them with a wealth of statistics; rather, convey to them what they do not know. Create an impact in them with a personal story or stories, especially those ones that involve their constituents. It is not unusual for them, when addressing other members of their legislative body, to repeat these stories almost verbatim.
If you want to become a legislative advocate start by looking up pertinent governmental web sites and become aware of the legislative process. In South Carolina, every bill needs 3 readings alternating between the two chambers. Keeping it complicated, rules are different for each chamber. After a reading, the bill may be assigned to a subcommittee. This is where most bills die, so beware! If the bill is scheduled for a subcommittee, its chairman is the person whom you will be most closely working with. Bring a physician to talk to this person. Otherwise this is when the “crazies” come out. You do not know what your other committee members, that are supposedly promoting your bill, will say. Sometimes, quite unwillingly, their words may serve to defeat your collective efforts. Rehearse and be cognizant of the main points you want your legislator to know and understand.
After being drafted in a subcommittee, a bill is sent to the committee where a vote is taken. The bill can then go to the floor for debate or go back to the subcommittee. The second reading is the major vote. Be aware that legislators will never agree on the wording of a bill as one chamber doesn’t believe that the other chamber knows what they are doing. This is why sometimes members from both chambers get together to discuss the same. If accepted the bill it will go to the governor who has 7 days to sign on it. If not signed within the stipulated period, the bill will automatically become a law.
Some important points to remember:
- You may work on a bill for years and not get closure. If there is a major problem (e.g., health, safety) for which some action needs to be urgently taken, you can try to pass a “safety bill” or provision to take care of your immediate concerns while the main bill is being passed.
- The majority of bills die in subcommittees. The fastest law that I am aware of took only 2 months to pass and that was considered lightning speed. It all depends on how contentious a bill is, what the chambers are working on, if they have a full schedule, etc. Be patient!
- An advocate must be somebody who manages schedules. Be aware of the important dates and inform your friends or other committee members about them.
- You have to be persistent and, very importantly, learn how to beg.
- Get a hold of a “professional” public advocate. These are primarily parents who get involved in causes many times involving kids or specific conditions, like dyslexia. These parents know the process and can help you get more money.
- If a law gets rejected, try to institute a task force to bring those that dissented back to the table. Never give up!