Congressional “chits”?

Comedienne Joan Rivers often began her monolog by asking ” Can we talk?”. Her purpose was to prepare her audience for some plain talk about a touchy subject. So channeling Joan, today I am asking readers “Can we talk? ”

Having worked around legislative bodies for almost 50 years, I am appalled when a client (or worse, a lobbyist) says ” Let’s not spend our “chits” on this or that.” It’s as though their congressional member was keeping score by counting your university’s “chits,” (whatever they are ). With the knowledge that TTO research commercialization capacity may not always be your university’s highest priority, it is essential to obtaining federal research grants and therefore critical to your university’s research mission. Commercialization is in danger and thus is well worth discussing with your home state delegation members. We appreciate that the political environments within universities can be complicated. Respectfully, communicating with Congress is not. University leadership frequently views communications with Congress as similarly nuanced and complex. However, it’s not rocket science. Members want to hear from their home state universities.

Henceforth herein I will refer to your university as “you” and the congress person or staffer with whom “you” communicate as “member” or ” she/her.”

She is not keeping score with you. Her reelection’s likelihood is of paramount importance. She is keeping score solely with her next vote count. You are an important and influential constituent. You often are one of the state’s largest employers. You contribute to in-state economic growth and development. You can favorably recognize her with awards, highly visible head-table location and athletic event seating, and you can even name buildings after her. She, therefore, wants to please you as much, and as often as possible. In today’s communication world, virtually every vote leaves a permanent trail and thus requires careful calculation. If that vote happens to coincide with your wishes, she will credit you with having convinced her — whatever her real reason. What members dislike most is being unaware of where you stand on an issue that affects you big or small. They appreciate communication because, a. they are hearing and learning from a credible constituent and, b. they want attention, not neglect. Connecting with them flatters their egos. As long as it is respectful, you cannot too often give your views on any issue that affects you.

Don’t wait for her to ask. She cannot ask for your advice without actually obligating herself to follow your advice. Depending on the gravity of a given issue you can give her a “heads up” from a “trusted resource” or a plea as a “concerned constituent” and every nuance in between. Giving her your views is what matters most. Members cannot always vote with you, but they hate “flying blind” in your air space. Her congressional life is full of constituent land mines. She benefits the most by knowing where you stand. When she follows your advice, she will want credit for doing so, and you should thank her. When she doesn’t, she will be inclined some future time to “make up for it.”

The bottom line is she invariably will act to enhance her reelection. By telling her where you stand you help her maximize her reelection flexibility. Because you are deemed essential, you can give her “cover” when she needs it on hard votes. Voting flexibility and credible cover are “coin of the realm” in Congress You, therefore, cannot go to the well too often, only too infrequently. And as for counting “chits” fuggedaboutit!

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