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On the Hill

2012-02-01, Feature, by Phil Hayward

To most Americans, Capitol Hill—or, simply, The Hill—conjures up visions of the iconic white Capitol building which really does sit atop a hill, with sweeping westward views of parks and monuments. But as advocates for myriad worthy causes will tell you, the Hill is much more than a metaphor for the combined workings of the three branches of government. It’s where the work of government gets done and thus it’s a magnet for all who would like to see their work get done in Washington. Just as business in the “White House” gets done in numerous buildings near the actual Presidential residence, legislative work occurs in massive office buildings ringing the Capitol building. With names like Dirksen, Russell, Cannon, and Hart, these buildings house the offices of senators and representatives as well as those for committees and hearing rooms. It’s along their many miles of corridors that NRPA’s staff and members traverse in pursuit of the association’s mission.

While much non-monetary legislation gets accomplished on Capitol Hill, it’s money, pure and simple, that drives most activity here. It’s the October-to-September federal budget cycle that gives Washington its own seasonal feel and shape. Even with the current disruptive partisan spectacle characterized as deficit reduction, the annual budget cycle still dominates.

It was in this milieu that NRPA achieved one of its major Hill accomplishments, the securing of $45 million in Land and Water Conservation Fund State Assistance monies while simultaneously fighting back a Department of the Interior proposal to alter the universal distribution of funds to a restrictive competitive grant system. Achieving this rare victory in a period of bitter cost-cutting required coordinated planning, consummate networking, and plain hard work. In this article NRPA staff and members explain how they achieved this victory—with an eye to demonstrating the invaluable grassroots member contributions to the NRPA mission.

Annually, the first week in February, the President of the United States addresses the nation to preview the upcoming federal fiscal budget, as presented by the Executive branch. “This is when we get a sense of what the Administration wants to do,” says Stacey Pine, NRPA Vice President of Government Affairs. “For Fiscal Year ’12, the Administration proposed fully funding LWCF and providing $200 million to the Stateside program.

“The problem was the Administration also proposed a competitive grant program, using 60 percent of the Stateside monies for a Department of Interior-administered competitive grant program that would have taken money away from the states.”

In essence, the Department of Interior’s plan called for using the majority of the Stateside money to fund only a few projects.  Likely these projects would have been located in key battle ground states.

Gone would have been the far fairer Stateside apportioning formula for cities, counties, and states around the entire country. In anticipation of the annual Congressional appropriations hearings to dissect the Administration’s budget, Pine and her team went into action.

Each year between February and March, NRPA staff provide written testimony for Congressional appropriations hearings  to lay out the association’s views and wishes for the proposed budget. Much of their work happens behind the scenes in numerous meetings with members of Congress, their direct staff, and the staffs of appropriations subcommittees. It’s a critical time for any organization seeking to find new funding or to preserve existing funding.

“This is why the Legislative Forum is so important—it’s right in the middle of appropriations hearings,” Pine says. “That’s when we send our members to the Hill. Members schedule meetings with their representatives to help emphasize our priorities.”

Two things were different this past year for Fiscal Year 2012. Congress had entered a period of cost-cutting so bitter on both sides of the partisan aisle that the appropriations cycle got set back nearly six months, propped up and glued together with continuing resolutions. Ultimately, the delayed timeframe didn’t change NRPA’s approach, although it did reflect a changed Hill environment.

“The environment on Capitol Hill is one of cutting—cut, cut, cut,” Pine says. “Normally, NRPA would go into Congressional offices asking for an increase in funding for Stateside or whatever program we are working on.

“This year,” Pine continues, “based on our consultation with The Ferguson Group [NRPA’s outside lobbying firm], our own team, and with many trusted people on the Hill, it was made very clear to us that this was not the year to be asking for an increase in funding—which happens to be ironic, because we ended up getting one. So, the days of going into a Congressional office and hearing them say, ‘I’m sorry. We can’t do this,’ are gone. The apology for not providing funding is gone and the mantra is that we need to curb the federal deficit. That’s on both sides of the aisle.

“The conversations are a little more honest now, because they don’t have to placate you for political reasons in this environment of cutting,” says Joel Pannell, NRPA Outreach and Advocacy Specialist. “They’re saying, ‘Look, you basically have to justify why you should be funded at the levels you have been at. You have to justify why you should not have to be on the chopping block.’”

That’s a role with which Pine and her team have no problem. Justifying programs and providing data and hard evidence in support of them is their stock in trade.

“When we go to meet in a Congressional office, there is a lot of pre-planning and post-activity that takes place,” Pine says. “This is when our members are so important .”
 Pine describes a not-so-hypothetical example of such groundwork. In planning a meeting with, say, a key member of the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, Pine’s team would pull together a raft of relevant information.

“We would find out how many projects have been funded with Stateside money in his Congressional district,” Pine says. “We will likely call several members in that state to get inside information on recent projects that have been built and what benefits they have provided. Likely, also, we’ll find out what’s a project in his district that needs to be built—but is not able to be built unless funding is provided for Stateside.”

This approach may be a bit mechanical and predictable, which is why NRPA also provides a “human story” by offering real-life stories of Stateside-funded projects. They will also demonstrate with National Park Service supported data that had 40 percent of total LWCF funding gone to the Stateside program, then the Member’s state could have received specified amounts of money. “It’s a combination of presenting data as well as the human stories,” Pine says.

At this point, NRPA members step up their contact with representatives. Pine and her team meet with members from strategic districts and states and let them know with whom NPRA has met with. Thus, if needed (and usually they are needed), NRPA members will have at their disposal an array of pre-crafted letters and information for contacting Hill staff members.

This is a practice NRPA would normally have exercised in the traditional January-March time frame. But because of the stalled budget process, Congress fell behind preparing the FY 2011 budget, the FY2012 cycle got off to its infamously slow start. NRPA found itself doing its work between April and June, with the final vote coming at the very end of last year. The 2103 cycle, Pine says, should be back in sync.

Candi Rawlins, Executive Director of the Tennessee Recreation and Park Association, led her state’s efforts in the FY 12 LWCF campaign. Rawlins explains that the effectiveness of her state’s efforts in the FY 12 LWCF campaign had much to do with the long-range cultivation of Tennessee’s political leadership.

“Our members have seen me write about LWCF in our e-newsletter for so long, they would probably like me to stop, but I do it as a continuing education that we owe our members and citizens as to what their elected officials are doing and how it will impact them and the citizens they serve,” Rawlins says. “Many times it is the directors or mayor who take action, but how will folks know what is going on if we don’t keep them in the loop?”

Rawlins says both Tennessee senators, as well as all the members of the Tennessee Obesity Task Force and all members of the Tennessee Conservation Voters (two of our lobbying partners) received her letters in support of LWCF Stateside funding. “We invited all our partners to sign on to our letter as well as our departments and their names come first on the signing list (It is on our letterhead).  I wanted to make the point that it was not just parks and recreation but many sectors of the community that were concerned here.”

That Tennessee is a mostly Republican-led state has affected her advocacy less than one would think.

“Our Representatives and their staffs have always been most kind when we call or email,” Rawlins says. “I have even had a senior staff member take my call on a Friday night after 5 p.m., when there was an important vote coming up and we needed to get a message to his senator.  We know Sen. Alexander (R-TN) is very supportive and understands the urgency of LWCF.  He has been since he was Governor of Tennessee.  We understand that as a member of the appropriations committee he cannot write a letter, but he can support us when this legislation is before the committee.

"How the full $45 million funding for Stateside Assistance emerged from the crucial reconciliation process between the House and the Senate still has NRPA’s advocacy staff marveling at the ironic twists and turns of federal legislative machinery. For its part, the House had reduced LWCF funding to $2 million, just enough for National Park Service administrative purposes and essentially none for the states. That’s when House staffers began telling NRPA to focus on the Senate, where they might find more a more sympathetic reception. What might have been a longshot became more promising with the cultivation of new relationships with staff members on both sides of the aisle of the Senate Interior Appropriations Subcommittee.

Ultimately, the use of data and NRPA member advocacy helped to convince Congressional staff and Members of Congress that Stateside funding was needed and that a Department of Interior competitive grant program would be detrimental to virtually every state and community in the country. As a result, $45 million was provided to the Stateside program with the bill also specifying that zero dollars were provided for a competitive grant program.

Was it the best possible outcome for parks and recreation? For FY12, yes, it was. Admittedly, it’s a one-year, one-time outcome and many expect the Department of the Interior to try for the competitive grants program in the FY 2013 cycle, since it considers the program a key part of President Obama’s America’s Great Outdoors conservation initiative. This means that in addition to starting the fight for funding all over again, park and recreation advocates may have to once again fight to keep a competitive grant program at bay in FY13. The victory achieved with the FY12 appropriations bill shows that every voice does make a difference. Any time parks and recreation can achieve a victory as large as this in recessionary, partisan times it shows the effectiveness of NRPA’s advocacy program.

Phil Hayward is Editor of Parks & Recreation.
 

 

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