Public Policy Update

'Lobbyists are well-heeled, cigar-smoking influence peddlers who negotiate deals in back rooms'

Chances are, the mental picture you have of a lobbyist has a few of the characteristics in the headline. It's no wonder, then, that many psychologists quickly look for the door when engaged in a conversation about the importance of psychologists becoming active in advocacy. As people who start such conversations, we in APA's Public Policy Office have seen that response quite often. It's time to dispel a few myths about advocacy, about who lobbies and why and what you may get from it. Because the truth is that the best lobbyist, the person who may be best able to persuade your Senator or Representative of the value of psychology, is you.

"But Congress doesn't really affect me or my work," you may say.

No? If your research is federally funded, then you have Congress to thank. Sure, you made it through peer review on your own merits, but if that agency had less funding, your chances of getting funding would likely be narrowed. If your students receive federal loans and grants, that means Congress was involved. If any of your clients receives Federal Employee Health Benefits, Medicaid or Medicare, that's Congress at work again.

Sometimes, behavioral research grants or articles are singled out for negative attention in Congress. That could affect you. Data from published research that was used in making federal policy are now subject to request via the Freedom of Information Act. That was Congress's doing. And the list goes on.

"I would feel uncomfortable asking for something from my member of Congress."

Members of Congress are in office to solve problems. That's what they want to do; that's why they were elected. If you are unable to obtain funding for your students, if your clients can't afford treatment, if your research has policy implications that Congress should know about, then you have a good reason to visit your Representative or Senator, or a member of their staff.

"Don't members of Congress only listen to big contributors?"

Members of Congress listen to voters. The only entrée you need to your Representatives' or Senators' offices is the fact that you are a constituent. You will be welcomed; they want to meet you and hear your concerns. Being a big contributor won't hurt, of course, but it is in no way a prerequisite to making your views known.

Tom Lombardo, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Mississippi, participated in a Science Advocacy Training session at APA in 1995, and wrote a memo to his departmental colleagues ("Mr. Tom Goes to Washington") that has become an underground classic. In the section titled, "Advocacy Is Important, or Advocacy Apathy Will Have Negative Consequences," he wrote, "Writing letters to our congressmen can have a real impact on bills that affect our lives. Our congressmen see us as both constituents and experts....The bottom that advocacy may not always get the desired result, but lack of advocacy effort will guarantee the undesired result."

"Even if I were to speak to my member of Congress or his staff, what are the odds that it would have any impact?"

Ask Leonard Jason, PhD, professor of psychology at DePaul University in Chicago. Jason met with congressional staff in late 1997 with a group of other tobacco researchers, whom APA's Public Policy Office had brought to Washington. A few weeks later, the staff of the House Commerce committee asked Jason to testify at a hearing on youth access to tobacco products. He wrote about the experience in an article published last August in Professional Psychology: Research and Practice (Vol. 30, No. 4). Jason was able to present a statement about his research on ways to restrict youth access to tobacco products, and answered the committee's questions for over an hour. It was a unique opportunity to educate members of Congress who were about to write legislation on that very subject.

Not everyone who speaks to his or her member of Congress will be asked to testify before a committee, but what better way to "give psychology away"?

"What would I say--how can I find out how different bills or policies could affect my work?"

We're glad you asked! There are two important ways to stay abreast of policy information that can affect your research or practice. The first is to join APA's Public Policy Action Network (PPAN), a noninteractive e-mail network managed by PPO. Network members receive periodic information updates and action alerts via electronic mail. We will provide information you need to pass along to members of Congress, with sample letters or phone scripts. The messages include links to supporting information.

The second way to keep up is to visit PPO's home page. The page offers links to advocacy information relating to science, practice, education and public interest psychology. You can join PPAN online, get information about issues, or look at guides to federal advocacy. All that--and no tarnish remover needed! You will assume your rightful role as a significant contributor to the democratic process.