One of the most interesting and fun things I do is teach. In addition to regular classes on rhetoric and language in the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, and an upcoming gig as the local instructor for the new Emerson College program in DC, I am supervising a GW graduate student directed study in strategic communication.
As one might imagine most of the course work is focused on Big Issues – case studies of the environmental movement, the death penalty, and efforts against corporations doing work in nations with corrupt governments. Scholars and reporters tend to write about what interests them, which is often what interests the rest of us: big topics with broad impacts. But as my student and I talked last week it became clear that very few of these Big Issues with Big Campaigns and massive strategic efforts actually change a lot of laws. One scholarly piece argued that the ultimate changing of laws didn’t matter, it was whether or not groups were able impact the agenda. That, of course, is absurd. Agenda setting matters because it helps you win. Having a lot hearings on your bill and can advance an agenda, but the point of strategic communication efforts aimed at Congress is the changing policy.
Some efforts of course have some policy outcomes – the federal Innocence Protection Act, state death penalty reform and abolition, and US Supreme Court rulings limiting capital punishment are the result of an intentional agenda setting effort. But that such is worthy of a book length scholarly case study ( The Decline of the Death Penalty and the Discovery of Innocence) indicates how much of an outlier such outcomes are.
Most bills, most of the time, never make headlines. And most bills are full of tons of provisions that never make the story at all. That does not, however, mean that such provisions are unimportant or that they are not the result of strategic political efforts.
For example a provision in the Higher Education Reauthorization Act encouraging universities to help stop online copyright theft is tremendously important to the film, television and music industries. They worked hard with allies on the Hill to ensure the copyright protection language was put in, and stayed in, the legislation. A package of extensions to expiring tax provisions is stuck in the politics of the House and Senate as well as larger budget politics. Largely escaping public and press notice are the provisions themselves, including one to help counter foreign government efforts to lure film productions overseas. This extension is very important to the film industry, and a coalition of entertainment industry groups is working hard to keep it.
These efforts which fly below the radar screens of scholars and the popular press succeed or fail for the same reasons the Big Issues do – an ability to define goals, identify who has power over those goals, learn what they find persuasive from whom, and do that.