Election Year Advocacy
Welcome to the jungle of election year advocacy.
By Alpha Lillstrom
February 2, 2016
Each United States Congress is seated for two years; each of the years is referred to as a session. Last January the members of the 114th Congress were sworn in. With the close of 2015, we saw the end of its first session. We are now in the second session of the 114th Congress and the legislators remain the same—aside from any special elections like the one to fill the seat vacated by former Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH). All bills introduced in 2015 will remain viable for the duration of the 114th Congress; the bill numbers remain the same and we will continue to add to the list of legislative cosponsors. In election years, Congress spends less time legislating and that legislative activity is usually more subdued; however, due to the high number of representatives and senators running for elected office, this year’s opportunities for grassroots involvement will be plentiful. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, should be to plan to engage anyone asking for your vote in a policy discussion about the importance of private practice physical therapy.
The Private Practice Section (PPS) legislative and advocacy priorities set by the board of directors and the Government Affairs Committee for the 114th Congress remain in place and will continue to be used to guide our advocacy efforts for the remainder of the year. During the last Congress we saw a lot of progress toward these goals but much remains to be accomplished. However, while our advocacy agenda remains the same, the political landscape will be different because this is a congressional election year. The fact that this is also a presidential election year magnifies the effect.
In Washington, D.C., there is a clear pattern of behavior during election years. Members of the House of Representatives serve two-year terms. Every even-numbered year congressional elections are held, and all seats in the House of Representatives are voted on. Almost 90 percent of the currently serving representatives are planning to run for reelection. Many members in the House are in “safe” seats, meaning that while they may have an opponent, the challenger has little chance of unseating the incumbent. This is because the vast majority of the congressional districts in the United States were drawn by the state legislators so that the majority of voters in the said district are affiliated with a particular party. However, regardless of how “safe” a seat is, each member of Congress who runs for reelection returns to their district to engage with the electorate.
The term for a United States senator is six years. However, in order to maintain continuity in the elected body, approximately one-third of that chamber’s seats are up for election every two years. Most of the senators whose terms expire in 2016 are actively pursuing reelection. Many of the remaining senators who are not up for reelection, or are retiring, will travel and campaign on behalf of their colleagues. Additionally, as of January 1, 2016, 14 members of the House of Representatives have declared their intent to vacate their current position and run for a seat in the United States Senate. As of this press time, there are also thre senators: Ted Cruz (R-TX), Marco Rubio (R-FL), and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) still running for President. As in election years past, we anticipate that this will result in significantly less time for legislative action this year. The published congressional calendars reflect the desires of the senators and representatives to be back home meeting with their constituents and attending campaign events.
In odd-numbered years, the House and Senate generally recess for four-weeks in August to have an extended period of time back in their district. However, this year both the House and Senate will recess for seven weeks beginning in mid-July and will not return to Washington until after September 5, Labor Day. Because it is an election year, a second, extended recess will take place in October. The House will be in recess for six weeks beginning October 3 while the Senate plans to go home a week later. These extended at-home work periods will provide PPS members with many opportunities to engage with their legislators.
Following the election, both chambers are scheduled to return to Washington, D.C., on November 14 for what is called a “lame duck” session. This moniker refers to the fact that not all members of Congress will retain their seats for the 115th Congress. Some lawmakers will have lost the election or have chosen to retire. These outgoing senators and representatives will be replaced in January 2017 by the victorious candidates. However, there will still be important legislative matters to be voted on during the last four weeks of the legislative calendar. As a result of not having to face voters again, the demeanor of those outgoing legislators can become less predictable. Some may be more willing to compromise, while others could become more rigid.
As of our print date, 19 representatives (13 Rs and six Ds) and five senators (two Rs and three Ds) have declared their intent to retire. When a long-serving member of Congress is retiring, it is not uncommon for votes to be called to consider his or her pet project bills to secure that member’s legislative legacy. This year many of the retiring members, such as representatives Lois Capps (D-CA), Jim McDermott (D-WA), Joe Pitts (R-PA), Charles Rangel (D-NY), and Ed Whitfield (R-KY), and senators Dan Coats (R-IN) and Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), have served decades in Congress. During their tenure, these members have served on committees with jurisdiction over health care issues. We will keep a lookout for any opportunities to position our priority bills for passage during the lame duck session.
While the long recesses limit chances for legislative action in Washington, D.C., they provide valuable opportunities for grassroots involvement. As legislators will be attempting to connect with their voters, this is the perfect time for PPS members to attend town hall meetings and political events of all types, reach out to district offices, request meetings, and schedule sitevisits. By engaging with the member of Congress and their staff, you become the face of physical therapy in the eyes of your legislator. When you form a relationship with the member and his or her staff, you can become a trusted source of information and a touchstone for physical therapy issues. By hosting them in your clinic for a site visit, you can transform policy discussions into tangible, concrete examples for them to remember and to share with their colleagues. The more rapport you build with your lawmaker and their staff, the more effective your advocacy becomes. When interacting with your legislator during campaign season, not only are you more likely to have a chance to speak to the member, but also it is possible that your engagement will catch the attention of the local media. Please take advantage of these events and opportunities to connect with your members of Congress.
PPS members should continue to urge members of Congress to pass practical, low-cost legislation such as the Prevent Interruptions in Physical Therapy Act (HR556/S313), which would add physical therapists to the Medicare locum tenens statute, thereby allowing them to use a qualified substitute physical therapist in their professional practices when it is necessary to be absent for a short time due to illness, pregnancy, jury duty, vacation, continuing medical education, or the like. You will also want to urge your legislators to advance the Commonsense Reporting Act (HR2712/S1996), which would streamline the employer reporting requirements under the Affordable Care Act and to support the FAST Act (HR2799/S1465), which would improve access to telehealth for victims of stroke. Our efforts to repeal and replace the therapy cap (HR775/S539) will continue with full awareness that legislation like this that carries a high budgetary price tag is unlikely to be voted on prior to the election. The current therapy cap exceptions process extended in the April 2015 Sustainable Growth Rate repeal will expire on December 31, 2017.
It is also worth noting that this is the final year of the Obama Administration. During 2016, the agencies will be focused on securing President Obama’s legacy through regulatory rulings. The Department of Health and Human Services has recently focused on rulemaking to further strengthen the Affordable Care Act and improve Medicare’s innovation, cost-effectiveness, and quality. At the same time, agency leadership are political appointees of the president and will therefore respond in a politically savvy way to the prospects of who is likely to be the next president of the United States. As the year progresses, if it looks more like a Republican will win the presidency, agencies will be on task to issue more extensive rules in order to solidify the agenda of the current administration. On the other hand, if it looks like a Democrat will be victorious and a like-minded policy agenda will continue for another four years, then agencies tend to be more restrained in their rulemaking, with fewer bold proposals that could cause difficulty or distractions for the candidate campaigning for the presidency.
During this politically exciting and unpredictable year, it is important to continue to educate lawmakers and increase the visibility of PPS and its policy agenda. Your lobbyists and staff will continue to push the section’s advocacy agenda. At the same time, we will provide timely resources to PPS members so you will be prepared to effectively engage your legislators. Your connections and conversations with your elected officials are critical if we are to make a difference. We are excited for what this year could bring.
Alpha Lillstrom is a registered federal lobbyist working with Connolly Strategies & Initiatives, which has been retained by PPS. An attorney by training, she provides guidance to companies, nonprofit organizations, and political campaigns. For six years, she served as Senior Policy Advisor and Counsel for Health, Judiciary, and Education issues for Senator Jon Tester (Montana), advising and contributing to the development of the Affordable Care Act, as well as working on issues of election law, privacy, government transparency, and accountability. Alpha has also directed Voter Protection efforts for Senators Bob Casey, Al Franken, Russ Feingold, and Mark Begich. She was Senator Franken’s Policy Director during his first campaign and was hand-picked to be the Recount Director for his eventual 312-vote win in 2009.