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You can almost hear them humming Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” Leading congressional Democrats, citing polls and pundits, increasingly believe that they will win control of at least the House of Representatives in the Nov. 7 elections. If they do, how should businesses and advocacy organizations seeking to affect policy anticipate change and make it their ally rather than their enemy? To answer this question, we should start by looking at how Congress itself is likely to change if the Democrats gain a majority. Democrats are regarded as the natural party of government. Many Democrats mocked Republicans in 1994 for not knowing how to run the House. Well, guess what? If Democrats win this year, they will do so with mostly members and staff who were not on the Hill in 1994. As hard as it is to believe for the natural party of government, there will be almost as steep a learning curve for 2006 Democrats as there was for 1994 Republicans. This may give public affairs offices and lobbying firms with former Democratic representatives an edge, because of their ability to lend expertise, institutional memory, and a similar political ethos to the new leadership. Next, Democrats have pledged to run a kinder, gentler House than Republican leaders Newt Gingrich (Ga.), Tom DeLay (Texas), and Dennis Hastert (Ill.) — allowing the minority to have its say and actually offer amendments on the House floor. Yet the temptation for payback may prove irresistible. After all, Gingrich made similar promises when he took over as speaker in January 1995. Newt, however, discovered the concept of British-style “parliamentary discipline” and said that he would henceforth rely only on his own party to pass most bills. He then proceeded to go much further in restricting the minority than previous Democratic speakers such as Tip O’Neill (Mass.), Jim Wright (Texas), or Tom Foley (Wash.) had ever dared. Today’s Democrats are more united and disciplined than they were before 1994 and might be capable of implementing DeLay-style rule. The question is, “Will they?” If they do, it will relegate House Republicans to a sideline role they haven’t played in more than a decade. If that’s the case, it will be tough for the House Republicans to have much impact on legislation. DON’T CROSS THE CHAIR One area where Democrats are almost certain to be unlike their Republican colleagues: Democratic chairmen would probably never tolerate the amount of influence from the speaker’s office over key committee membership and actions. The balance of power between committee chairs and the party leadership would thus change dramatically under a new Democratic leadership. Consider some of the likely committee chairmen: John Dingell (Mich.) at Energy and Commerce, David Obey (Wis.) at Appropriations, Charles Rangel (N.Y.) at Ways and Means, George Miller (Calif.) at Education and the Workforce, Henry Waxman (Calif.) at Government Reform, John Conyers (Mich.) at Judiciary. These are experienced, headstrong legislators who will pursue their own agendas. They are loyal Democrats, to be sure, but their definition of party discipline is looser. Anyone who wants something out of these and other committees had best not cross the chair. This also means that the Bush administration can expect in-depth investigations, embarrassing hearings, and probes of matters they would prefer were left alone — everything from the mistakes of the Iraq war to the abuses of Halliburton, from allegations the administration ignored pre-9/11 warnings to the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe. It may also mean investigations directed at some favorite Democratic targets of the past, including the health care sector, pharmaceuticals, and defense. The Democrats are likely to move swiftly on certain items — a minimum-wage increase, lobbying reform, and changes to the Medicare prescription-drug plan, perhaps. Yet much of their time will still be spent opposing Bush administration proposals. With conference committees, the difficulty of ironing out differences in legislation between a more centrist or liberal Democratic House and a conservative Republican Senate (assuming it stays under Republican control) will be formidable. And negotiations with the White House to craft bills the president would sign rather than veto may prove even harder. The outlook, therefore, is for even less productivity than the 109th Congress, which itself set modern records for inaction. (It held only 81 voting sessions, 29 fewer than the famous “do-nothing Congress” that Harry Truman ran against in 1948, and it passed only two of 11 appropriations bills for the next fiscal year.) As a result, organizations seeking to conduct effective public affairs programs are more likely to win defensive than offensive battles, and any legislation will have to have genuine bipartisan support to have a chance of becoming law. NEW REALITIES Given these realities, if you are a public affairs professional, you should work today to get a step ahead of change by • Knowing the key players in a Democratic Congress, especially staffers.

• Demonstrating how policy goals advance a member’s political advantage, because most of the 110th Congress’ attention will be focused on another pivotal battle for legislative control and the presidential campaign in 2008. For example, you can arm yourself with polling and other research supporting the appeal of your position to swing voters, or you can be prepared to finance advertising in the member’s district. • Treading a bipartisan line. No matter which party is in power in 2007 and 2008, any organization that can bridge the gap between the two sides of the aisle will have an advantage over everyone else. If the Republicans keep control, their narrower majorities will make it easier for Democrats to block legislation, especially in the Senate. If Democrats win, both they and President George W. Bush (through his veto) will have the power to kill almost any bill they want. In other words, a bill will become law only if it is crafted with significant input from both Democrats and Republicans — or if it can attract the support of the White House and 20 to 30 representatives from the party otherwise opposed to the legislation.

One thing that won’t change is that effective advocacy and public affairs will continue to require a a blend of the high-tech, individualized targeting of voters that Republicans have pioneered — for example, identifying the fact that individuals who purchase certain products are much more likely to take the same position as you on specific issues — and significant familiarity with the issues, the members, and their staff. Combining these approaches — whom you know, what you know, and whom you can mobilize — creates a synergy that dramatically increases one’s chances of success. In short, if the Democrats can win control of either chamber, the political landscape will dramatically shift, and anyone who fails to prepare does so at his or her own risk. But those who start getting ready now may find themselves forging new opportunities out of any change.
Jeffrey M. Sandman is CEO of Hyde Park Communications, a public affairs and communication firm with offices in Washington, D.C., and New York City.

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