August recess now high season for interests lobbying lawmakers


Organizing for Action members Chris Williams, left, and Susan Johnson encourage commuters to take action on immigration reform at the Vienna Metro in Virginia. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
August 4, 2013

Lawmakers hoping for a respite from Washington’s intense lobbying climate won’t get a break back home during the August recess.

Once a lull in the political calendar, August is now officially part of the high season. An array of interest groups has methodically plotted how to use the congressional recess to press causes.

The sophisticated operations aim to drive a political narrative throughout the month, hoping to produce a strong display of voter sentiment that lawmakers will not be able to ignore when they return to Washington after Labor Day. At that point, they will immediately contend with a showdown over the budget, a House debate on immigration reform and the launch of new state health insurance marketplaces created by the Affordable Care Act.

So this month, the pressure is on. At town hall meetings, lawmakers will face activists calling for a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. On walks in local neighborhoods, they could run into gun-control advocates, who plan to blanket key districts with fliers. During visits to the county fair, they are likely to encounter voters demanding defunding of President Obama’s signature health-care law.

Liberal groups are employing top-shelf political tactics in their grass-roots advocacy campaigns, driven by the memory of being outflanked by conservative activists in the summer of 2009.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi called this session of representatives “an aimless Congress that is falling into chaos” the Friday before summer recess. (Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

Advocates for an overhaul of immigration laws and backers of the health-care law, among others, are using rapid-response war rooms, district-targeted organizing and elaborate media events to press their case while lawmakers are home in their districts.

They are determined to avoid a repeat of August 2009, when tea party activists and conservative groups descended upon congressional town hall meetings to denounce Obama’s plan to remake the health-care system. The loud and often rowdy opposition emerged as the singular story that August, further galvanizing the tea party movement and helping the GOP take the House in the 2010 midterm elections.

In 2009, “they did a good job of putting us on the defensive,” said Brad Woodhouse, president of the liberal advocacy group Americans United for Change. “Since then, I think it’s been a draw. But we’re not trying to fight them to a draw this August — we’re trying to win.”

With a divided Congress on track to hold one of its least productive sessions in decades, August has taken on heightened importance as an opening to reach recalcitrant members.

“If you’re going to get anything to move, you have to appeal to the lawmakers back at home,” said veteran Republican communications strategist Ron Bonjean.

“The smart outside groups have always used the recess to get their message through,” he added. “It’s just that now, the efforts are much more intense because of the gridlock in Washington.”

Obama has urged his backers to spend the month speaking out on issues such as gun control, climate change and health care, part of an “Action August” effort spearheaded by Organizing for Action, the advocacy group that grew out of his reelection campaign.

By the month’s end, “I think you will see our message has dominated the conversation,” said Jon Carson, the group’s executive director.

The issue that is expected to generate the most on-the-ground energy this month is a bipartisan push to persuade House Republicans to back a comprehensive rewrite of the country’s immigration laws. An unusual coalition of labor, business, faith and Latino organizations is launching huge coast-to-coast campaigns that will include rallies, voter-registration drives and prayer vigils in front of the district offices of lawmakers.

One of the largest events is set to take place in Bakersfield, Calif., on Aug. 14, when a two-day caravan of 1,100 vehicles — representing the number of illegal immigrants deported each day — will converge in front of the office of Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the GOP majority whip and the third-
ranking Republican in the House.

The goal of the nonstop events, said Frank Sharry, a longtime immigration advocate who runs the organization America’s Voice, is to create “surround sound.”

“We all know that most of this stuff is highly orchestrated,” Sharry said. “We’re not going to leave it to chance. Our opponents are signaling quite publicly they’re going to send people to town hall meetings to yell and scream. The question is, who else speaks up?”

Conservatives said they have no intention of relinquishing the spotlight. NumbersUSA, one of the groups fighting efforts to grant a legal pathway for illegal immigrants, held a conference call last week with more than 58,000 supporters to prepare them with talking points for the recess.

On another front, a coalition of groups including the Tea Party Patriots, ForAmerica, the Club for Growth and Heritage Action is launching a new campaign demanding members of Congress defund the Affordable Care Act.

“This is going to be health-care August again,” said Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, one of the groups that helped mobilize the protests four years ago. This time, the organization is recruiting young people to burn “Obamacare cards” to symbolize their antipathy for the law. (No such cards exist, but the organization has fashioned mock certificates that can be downloaded from its Web site and then destroyed.)

“The perfect storm that created that high participation and frustration in August of 2009, those conditions are with us today,” Kibbe said. “I think you’re going to see a lot of people showing up — not just tea partyers but disaffected Democrats and young people who aren’t getting what they voted for.”

A wave of on-the-ground activism in August is no guarantee of legislative victory in the fall, of course.

“For all of the tea party anti-health-care stuff in ’09, in the end, if you recall, we did pass it,” said communications strategist Brendan Daly, who was a spokesman for Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) when she was House speaker.

Still, he said, the flood of activism aimed at overtaking this recess underscores a new reality: “Basically, we’re in a permanent campaign.”

Much of the clamor on the ground will be driven by a professional class of political operatives who view the month as a prime business opportunity.

“This has become a big industry, and people have a vested interested in showing off what they’ve got,” said GOP strategist John Feehery, who served as spokesman for former House speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). “The target is the member of Congress, but it’s also trying to get funders involved.”

Lawmakers are not walking into the fray unarmed. Both party caucuses have prepared their members with extensive talking points. House Republicans, who are expected to be the focus of the attention, have been urged to stress the theme “Fighting Washington for All Americans.”

But even as August recess activity intensifies, the opportunity to confront lawmakers face to face is diminishing. Since the town hall confrontations of four years ago, fewer lawmakers are holding open gatherings or widely publicized constituent events, according to advocacy groups on both sides of the aisle.

So activists are using crowdsourcing to track down events and post them online, along with suggested talking points. FreedomWorks unveiled its “Demand a Townhall” Web effort last week, while Americans United for Change launched a similar site called Accountable Congress. The liberal group also is asking supporters to record their encounters with lawmakers and share the videos, hoping to capture moments that fuel a “national narrative,” Woodhouse said.

Still, with so many groups jockeying to be heard this month, it remains unclear whether any issue will dominate the news the way health care did four years ago.

“I think it’s going to be a lot of noise,” Feehery said. “It’s really a bunch of mixed messages that are going to leave members of Congress dazed and confused.”

Plus, he added, “some are probably just going to want a vacation.”

Alice Crites and Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.

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