Yasmine Mahdavi: Does My Voice Matter?

April 6, 2017

Does My Voice Matter?

After years of promising to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare, the repeal bill was pulled from the House floor on March 24. This was a surprising turn and a prime example of successful civic engagement swaying our representatives.

One of the reasons it didn’t pass was because informed citizens participated. Repeatedly, we read about and witnessed protests on the streets. Citizens wrote and called their representatives and attended town hall meetings to express their opinions about American Health Care Act (AHCA), the repeal and replace bill. Ultimately it was deemed an unacceptable substitute.

Lobbyists and special interest deafen citizens’ voices and restrain their participation. The ACA, like most pieces of legislation, was heavily influenced by lobbyists, despite President Obama’s 2007 campaign promise to curb their impact. Per the Center for Responsive Politics, total lobbying spending in all of government was USD3.1 billion and the number of registered, active lobbyists was 11,143, in 2016. (To add some perspective, Members of Congress’ allowance to support personnel, office expenses, etc. was less than a fifth of total lobbying spending in FY16, it was USD 554.3 million.) And these are just the recorded numbers. Even more lobbyists work in the shadows to flout transparency and accountability measures.

Those leaving the House or Senate also find a home as lobbyists. Public Citizen found 43 percent of Members of Congress who left office between 1998 and mid-2005 went on to register as lobbyists. Some have re-categorized themselves as “consultants,” and do the same work. Tom Daschle, a former Democratic Senator, is a prime example. After serving in the Senate, he took a job as a “special policy advisor” for Alston & Bird, a law firm, and their lobbying income promptly doubled.

Lobbyists as well as private citizens’ right to petition our government is protected by the First Amendment and affirmed in the Declaration of Independence. But unlike most of us, lobbyists use money to gain access to our representatives. And because running for public office is expensive — a candidate needed at least USD 1.6 million to win a seat in the House in 2012 — lobbyists play an instrumental role in ensuring financial viability for Members of Congress (and possible jobs for when they leave public service!). In addition to financial incentives, lobbyists provide research and information to resource strapped Members who cannot afford to hire independent expert consultants or staff. Some could argue this is to better inform representatives in their decision making process.

However, this year’s health care clash was not the first time citizen participation had a clear effect on legislation. In a recent New Yorker article Kathryn Schulz cites three examples of successful constituent advocacy on specific issues. In 1989, when Congress tried to increase its pay by 50 percent, the American public protested and Congress reversed course. In 2005, a heavily-lobbied immigration reform bill that cleared the House was pulled back from the Senate after significant citizen unrest including a mass mobilization of the Latino community. Lastly, in 2012, two obscure intellectual property bills provoked such outrage that nearly 20 percent of senators withdrew their support in a single day and the acts were effectively killed.

These inspiring examples reveal that democracy works best with an informed, active citizenry. It can be messy and sloppy, but it is ultimately the best alternative to everything else. When enough people mobilize, we can counteract influence. Our laws should be drafted and negotiated by our elected representatives expressing their constituents’ views and not those of lobbyists. When we advocate in concert for ourselves and our communities, our politicians on both sides of the aisle become more accountable and transparent and the laws of our nation less stained by special interests.

So, when you ask does my vote count, do my phone calls to my representative matter, the answer is yes! Don’t let this wave of engagement become a fad. The passion can be sustained — even though the path to success is a jagged line.

Yasmine Mahdavi is Generation Citizen’s Measurement and Evaluation Fellow.

Generation Citizen is a nonpartisan, 501(c)3 tax exempt organization which does not endorse candidates; our goal is to engage our staff, participants, and stakeholders in political and civic action on issues that matter to them personally and in their communities. The opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the writer alone and do not reflect the opinions of Generation Citizen.

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