Gridlock: A Way of Life in Washington, DC

Feb. 22, 2008
Convincing Congress to approve legislation is an exercise in patience and perseverance.

Two weeks ago, Ed Comeau with Campus Firewatch issued a release announcing that the House of Representatives approved legislation that would require colleges and university to post information on fire-related events on campus property. The Senate was in the process of passing legislation similar legislation. In the release, Comeau proclaimed that the campaign to approve the legislation was nearing completion following a six-year effort.

Six years? Why should it take six years to approve legislation that will advance the cause of public safety at little expense to the federal government? A good question and unfortunately, there is not a good answer.

When folks talk about the gridlock in Washington, DC, they are not necessarily talking about the traffic, as notorious as it is. They're talking about the political environment on Capitol Hill. Yes, six years seems like a long time to pass a bill; but for every piece of legislation that Congress approves, there are 20 other measures that fail. (In the 109th Congress, the House introduced 6,436 pieces of legislation and only 316 measures were approved by both chambers and signed into law by the President.)

Convincing Congress to approve legislation is an exercise in patience and perseverance. If you don't succeed the first time, don't get discouraged. Even the titans of lobbying face challenges in getting their legislation approved. Just ask the International Association of Fire Fighters that has been lobbying for passage of the Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act since the measure was first introduced in 1994. Or ask the International Association of Fire Chiefs and the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials who spent over 10 years trying to convince Congress to set aside broadcast spectrum for first responders. Congress finally approved legislation last year to begin the spectrum transition.

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Whenever Congress fails to act on a measure before the conclusion of a legislative session, the process must start anew in the next session - that is if the member is willing to reintroduce the measure and the coalition supporting it is willing to re-energize itself and fight the battle again. This means that the sponsor starts with a blank slate of co-sponsors and must contact each member again asking if they would be willing to support the measure. In addition, he/she must reach out to the new members, asking for their support. It often takes more than a phone call but instead lengthy discussions between members and their respective staffs before a signature is collected.

While final passage is the last hurdle before the President signs a measure into law, the biggest hurdle occurs when a measure is awaiting action by the committee of jurisdiction.

Following the tragic Station nightclub fire in 2003 that killed 100 people, former Congressman Curt Weldon introduced the Fire Sprinkler Incentive Act which would accelerate the depreciation of automatic sprinkler systems in commercial properties, including public facilities. For five years, a coalition of fire safety organizations, including CFSI, has been working to convince Congress to pass the measure. The bill has never made it past the House Ways and Means Committee or the Senate Finance Committee. The reasons vary - past cost estimates were considered too high by the respective committees' leadership, neither committee wants to address it as a stand-alone piece of legislation, and although not stated publicly, the measure was not originally introduced by a committee member.

Many years back when taking part in a question and answer session with a group of fire service officials, the comment was made to me that Congress needs to do more for the fire service because of the vital mission we serve throughout our great nation. I couldn't agree more. But as this exchange was taking place, there were probably a number of other similar discussions taking place among different groups making the same claim.

These are some of the politically realities that confront every interest group when seeking support for a legislative cause. When we fight for additional funding for FIRE Act, there is an opposing force arguing that the federal government should not be funding the fire service. In fact, back in 1999 when the legislation was first introduced, a committee chairman declaimed that he'd hold a hearing on the FIRE Act "when hell freezes over." Fortunately, it did not require a drastic temperature change down south to move the FIRE Act through Congress; just some crafty legislative maneuvering by our Caucus leaders.

Victories are few and far between on Capitol Hill. That is why we should take great pride when our legislation is approved and remain committed when it fails the first time around. As Thomas Edison once said, "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." If you have the perseverance to fight for a cause long enough, success will eventually greet you on Capitol Hill in the form of a legislative victory. You can be assured that it won't take 10,000 tries.

To see what legislation is currently going through Washington D.C., visit the Congressional Fire Service Institute's Current Legislation Page. Find out how to contact your local member of Congress and view a sample letter. To learn more about the legislative process, click here.

BILL WEBB, a Contributing Editor, is the Executive Director of the Congressional Fire Services Institute (CFSI). Established in 1989, CFSI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy institute designed to enhance Congressional awareness about the concerns and needs of the fire and emergency services. In his capacity, Bill works closely with members of Congress and fire service leaders on developing federal legislation to improve the readiness of our nation's fire and emergency services. Previously, he served in the first Bush Administration as Director of Advance at the U.S. Departments of Education and Labor, traveling across the country and abroad organizing events for the Secretaries. To read Bill's complete biography and view their archived articles, click here.

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