American Society of Hematology

Is Anybody in Washington Listening?

Roy L. Silverstein, MD

Published on: November 01, 2011

The Linda and John Mellowes Professor and Chairman, Department of Medicine, Medical College of Wisconsin

“We do not have a government of the majority. We have a government of the majority who participate.” –Thomas Jefferson

As a member of ASH, you have probably received requests from the Society to take some kind of legislative action: Call or email your Congressman. Many of you may find these requests annoying and wish they were captured in your junk mail folder. Or, you may feel – even if sympathetic to the policy issue – that you don’t have the time to respond. You may also wonder if anybody on Capitol Hill actually reads the emails ASH asks you to write and if they make any difference.

The fact is nearly all constituent communications are counted and responded to by Members of Congress and their staff. While it is true that individualized communications with some expression of personal sentiment or opinion are most likely to be influential, nearly all legislators do use constituent communications as a gauge of public opinion and integrate it into their decision-making. Consequently, the form letters ASH provides, at a minimum, are aggregated into the “for” or “against” category when received on Capitol Hill and help the legislator understand constituent feelings. Often, ASH email campaigns have been used by Members of Congress in their speeches or when they are questioning witnesses during Congressional committee hearings. The Legislative Alerts you receive from ASH also have the added benefit of timing. The ASH Government Affairs Department monitors legislative action in Washington and only notifies the ASH membership when contact with a Congressional office is likely to have the most impact, i.e., when Congress is focusing on that specific issue.

There are a few organized groups that have a powerful voice because of their reputation for organizing grassroots efforts in legislative battles. These include the National Rifle Association, AARP, and teachers unions. Media critics often confuse this grassroots power with fundraising capabilities, suggesting it is “special interest money” that influences lawmakers. The reality is it comes down to sheer numbers. The more people who share a common belief and are willing to put their voices behind that belief, the more influence they have in Washington. As we have seen in recent Congressional debates over the debt ceiling and federal spending, a vocal minority can be much more influential than a majority that is silent.

While I hope this reverses some of the cynicism out there and helps make the case for participating in ASH advocacy campaigns, it is important to point out that effective advocacy for the Society must go beyond form emails. The ASH Government Affairs Department is a constant presence in Washington, and it continually works on building relationships with Congress and federal agencies to represent the interests of the Society. In order to truly influence policy, however, members of this Society must develop long term personal relationships with policy-makers. There are several strategies to accomplish this including: personalizing your correspondence with the legislator to share stories about your patients, visiting your representative and senators in Washington, inviting your congressional delegation to your institution or practice, speaking with your Member of Congress at a town hall forum, and making yourself recognized as a helpful expert and resource by the lawmaker’s office. For those who are interested, the Society offers many resources to help do all of these and wants to work with you.

There are many important policy fights ahead. Legislative battles including federal spending for research, physician payment, and drug patents will need to be fought before the end of this year. The outcomes will significantly impact our research, practices, and patients. The Society will implement several advocacy campaigns, and I strongly encourage you to join with your ASH colleagues to voice your concerns and interests. Your views matter and your message will make a difference.

For more information about how to become involved in ASH Grassroots Advocacy, please contact the ASH Government Affairs Department at grassroots@hematology.org or 202-776-0544.

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