Connecting with Your Capitol: How Local IEEE Members Can Influence Their State Governments

BY Russell Harrison Posted: 1 Jun 2012

IEEE-USA has a full-time staff of government affairs experts in Washington, D.C., to help represent IEEE members before Congress and the national media.  But the federal government in Washington isn’t the only government that can influence your profession. 

In a federal system of government, like ours, the different levels of government have different responsibilities.  So, for example, if you are concerned about contract law, licensure issues, or employment law, you probably want to talk to your state government oofficials--not your Members of Congress in Washington.

From time to time then, engineers and other technology professionals will need to communicate with their state government.  While IEEE-USA staff can help with these efforts, much of the work will have to be done by local IEEE members themselves.  And a local IEEE Section or group of IEEE members have the ability to–and can--successfully influence their state legislatures.

State governments are, in general, easier to work with than the federal government.  Each elected official represents fewer people than members of Congress.  Moreover, the local government structure usually has fewer interest groups, professional advocates and lobbyists in the state capitols.  Because fewer people are asking for their time, individual legislators have more time to give to each petitioner.  With more time, legislators are far more likely to actually meet with their voters than their federal counterparts, who are more likely to make their staff available.

Yet despite the ease with which state legislators can be approached, many engineers remain hesitant to do so.  Their objections frequently boil down to one of three objections: 

It won’t work.
It will damage our reputations.
It is illegal.

All three objections, however, fail to be persuasive.

It won’t work:  This excuse for not even trying is disproven by the number of times it has worked.   IEEE Sections have won several important battles in state legislatures over the years.  In 2008, for example, the Baltimore Section led a successful effort to repeal a tax on computer services in Maryland.  Their project began with dozens of individual IEEE members contacting their state legislators to explain why the tax was a bad idea, and culminated in the Chair of the Baltimore section testifying before the state legislature, in opposition to the bill.  IEEE members have won victories on other issues in North Carolina, Missouri, Utah, and dozens of other states.

While it is not easy to influence a state legislature--it is possible, and easier than most people think. 

It will damage our reputations:

This objection stems from many engineers’ beliefs that they ought to be unbiased providers of technical information, not partisan lobbyists.  This perspective contains two problems.  First, to be a reliable source of technical information, you have to provide information.  You have to talk to people. 

Most elected officials, at all levels of government, are too busy to do much of their own research.  Instead, they try to manage the flood of information special interest groups, who want to influence their decisions, throw at them every day.  The vast majority of officials would welcome having an engineer sit down in their offices and explain (simply and quickly) how a given piece of legislation will affect society.  But you need to take the first step.  Politicians might be willing to listen to you, but it is very unlikely they will seek you out. You will have to go to them.

Second, engineers are still citizens.  As such, you are allowed to have opinions.  In fact, I am fairly confident that you have opinions arrived at only after a thoughtful analysis of the facts.  It is your right as a citizen to express those opinions.  Moreover, politicians will welcome hearing your ideas and thoughts, specifically because you are thoughtful.  Engineers are very good at solving problems, including problems that are not necessarily technical.  Your town, state and country will be run better, if you share your thoughts with your elected officials, even if those thoughts go beyond straight factual analyses.

It is illegal:

This objection to getting involved with the political system is becoming more common.  Ironically, campaign finance and ethic laws, designed to prevent large and well-funded interests from dominating the political debate, have in some ways amplified those groups’ influences.  As rules for engaging politicians become more complex, smaller, less-sophisticated groups drop out of the political process, ceding the field to the larger groups.  Perhaps it is best to just be quiet, than to risk breaking your state’s lobbying laws.

Or, not…  The rules restricting political activities apply to activities paid for by people other than you.  As an American citizen, you have a right to petition your government for the regress of grievances.  (It says so--right there in the First Amendment to the Constitution.)  As long as you use your money, you are free to petition, talk with, write and question your legislators--any time you want.  And you should...

On the other hand, it’s true that life gets tricky when you start using other people’s money to contact legislators.  If, for example, your local IEEE Section holds a Capitol Hill day in your local state capitol, and uses IEEE funds to buy everyone lunch, you could be running afoul of a state law. 

IEEE is a non-profit, as are all of its component parts, including your IEEE Section.  Non-profit tax law permits some lobbying activities, so your Section’s Capitol Hill Day won’t jeopardize your tax status, although this could change if lots of IEEE Sections started spending lots of money on advocacy efforts.

A more likely cause for concern is state law.  Each state has its own rules for who can talk to legislators, and how much they can spend doing it.  (Again, no state bans voters from using their own time and money to talk to their elected representatives.)  Some states are very permissive, others much less so.  It’s best to check your local laws before organizing any IEEE event that involves public policy or politicians.  You can do that yourself here (http://www.ncsl.org/legislatures-elections/ethicshome/50-state-legislative-ethics-and-lobbying-laws.aspx).   Or you can contact IEEE-USA to ask your policy experts to do it for you.  Although anti-lobbying laws were not intended to trap local IEEE members who just want to talk to their legislators--every now and then they do.  So, it’s better to check.

But the bottom line remains–it is legal for individual engineers, groups of engineers, IEEE Sections and IEEE itself to advocate at the state level.  You have professionals on staff at IEEE-USA who can teach you how to do whatever it is that you want to do.

Your state government impacts your profession and your career more and more each year.  It is in your interest, the interests of your community and the interests of IEEE for you to engage the local political system to help ensure that the impact is positive.  Doing so is not rocket science-- although, this being IEEE, it would not intimidate us if it were.  Sitting down and discussing the issues that matter to you in your state capitol can have a tremendous impact on public policy. 

And it is simple--and much easier than you think.

Russell T. Harrison is IEEE-USA’s senior legislative representative for grassroots affairs.

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