COVID Impact: Congress.
This week, Leader McConnell promised a slower and more methodical approach to any future COVID-19 relief. After several rounds of unprecedented federal spending to slow the economic bleeding, McConnell warned that the Senate wouldn’t simply green light another aid package by unanimous consent with senators spread out across the country—the full Congress would need to be back to normal in Washington. Those who are hoping this signals a robust return to the committee-driven, orderly legislative process are likely to be disappointed. Over the last few years, the real legislative process has moved from committee rooms and the senate floor to the leadership offices. As a result, any efforts to effect that aid package will require buy-in from Senators McConnell and Schumer, Speaker Pelosi and, to a lesser extent, Leader McCarthy. As they work towards major legislation, all four legislative leaders are constantly keeping an eye on their members’ political needs. That means supporting the priorities of the members in their party who are in tough reelection battles. In an election year where control of both houses hangs in the balance, swaying vulnerable representatives and senators is absolutely crucial to any public affairs campaign’s success. Over the coming weeks and months, we are likely to see a slew of relief packages and laws shaped by state and district-specific interests and concerns. There are COVID-19 hot spots throughout the country, leaving large swaths of people unemployed, states locked down, and health systems groaning under the caseload. When the dust settles and this crisis is over, constituents will look for someone to blame or someone to praise, depending on how they, their neighbors, and their entire community fared throughout the outbreak. The local effectiveness of Congress’s broader response plan will either help secure the reelection of vulnerable officials or ensure the end of their political careers. Party leadership recognizes this reality. There is no better example of this than Senator Cory Gardner (CO). Governor Polis asked for ventilators for the surge in COVID-19 cases for weeks to no avail. Senator Gardner, less than a day after publicly praising President Trump’s approval of national guard assistance in Colorado, was credited by President Trump with securing 100 ventilators for his state. It is no coincidence that Senator Gardner is one of the most vulnerable senators in 2020— Republican leadership is doing everything they can to shore up support for his reelection. So, if you’re mapping out a public affairs strategy, compare your potential allies with the House districts that are expected to host tight races this year. Look at the third of the Senate up for reelection this year, and whittle down your list of outreach targets to those representing competitive states. Look at the overlap of competitive districts and places where COVID-19 has surged. See where a federal response is essential. Those are the people who will have the leadership’s ear, but they are also going to be inundated with information, questions, and complaints from their constituents, county and city leadership, and their governor. Any public affairs outreach and influence has to be strategic, compelling, and relevant to their interests in this crisis. Picking your targets is key. In large legislative packages that are likely to contain thousands of pages of provisions, leaders are going to try to deliver for their members where it matters most. Congress is more centralized than it used to be. Effective public affairs campaigns are going to adjust their plans accordingly.