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Legislative vs Regulatory Issues: The Principles Are the Same

When people think of influencing public policy, the immediate focus becomes legislation. After all, the media tends to pay more attention to what the U.S. Congress and state legislators do than what regulators are up to. That’s natural because legislators are usually in the spotlight – debates occur in public and virtually every action has an equal and opposite reaction in a legislative body. Regulators, on the other hand, have a far more opaque decision-making process, don’t receive a fraction of the media coverage, and often appear to act unilaterally.

In reality, regulation and legislation share many similarities and stand to be influenced in much the same way. Agency officials want to be popular, just as much as elected politicians. They don’t want to be hauled up to Capitol Hill or before some state legislative committee and excoriated for implementing a dumb regulation.

Regulators value constituent input. Most of them became public servants to make a difference and do the right thing. By hearing from the individuals impacted by their rulemaking — both pro and con — they can make adjustments to improve the outcome.

For parties impacted by regulation, the path to influence may not be quite as clear as with legislation. We all were taught about “how a bill becomes a law” in civics class and know that to win a legislative battle we need to convince more members to vote for our position than against it.

But what about regulators? How do you influence the outcome of their decisions?

First, it is important to develop a good public narrative. In other words, tell your story and help others to understand your point of view. How issues are publicly framed is probably more important than any other element of the process. Use real-world examples and demonstrate the impact on average people of a particular regulation.

Your message should be communicated to regulators in a thoughtful, consistent, and compelling manner. Agency rule makers respond to important constituents just as legislators do. Encouraging elected officials to share their views can make a real difference, as can communications from academic experts, community leaders, significant employers, non-profit executives, and grassroots organizations.

Finally, the message is as important as the messengers. There can be an unfortunate tendency to act as if rule makers are the proverbial “nameless, faceless bureaucrats” and to resort to harsh rhetoric. Rarely, if ever, will a belligerent attack with a sledgehammer result in a positive outcome.

Regulators respond to smart, thoughtful arguments backed up by reason and evidence. They pay attention to official comments on proposed regulations, media reporting, and even well-argued editorials and op-eds.

When you find yourself with the need to influence the outcome of a regulatory process, borrow from what you have learned in your legislative advocacy campaigns. Remember that rule makers share many of the same motivations as elected policymakers and can be influenced by thoughtful, substantive arguments put forward by constituents.

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