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How to Make Congress Work for You

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congress, procurement, small business, Summit Insight, business development

New Federal administrations bring big ideas for change, both in acquisition policy and in the budgets that agencies have for contracting. Proposals for both are now moving into high gear! Those might represent things you want to see happen, things you don't want to see happen, or both.  

Right now, three things are essential to support your business interests with a new Federal administration in power: Research, Relationships, and Requirements. Here’s how to invest time and resources in all three, no matter where you are on the political spectrum!

Research

Speeches and tweets and news reports don't always mean the laws have changed! But they can alert us to possible changes that bear watching.

Maybe you want something to change – like adding more Indefinite Delivery Indefinite Quantity contracts for women-owned businesses. Maybe you want something to be sustained, like small business set asides generally. Or maybe you’re one of the veterans concerned about the level of commitment by the Department of Veterans Affairs to the “vets first” policy required in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2016 decsision on the Kingdomware case.

If you see something or hear something that gets your attention, start by getting the facts. What actual changes are being proposed, by whom, who has to approve a change, what might happen next, and when? 

Even after a law is passed, the contracting process doesn’t change until there are new regulations and guidance for the contracting officers. That's right: laws can take years to be implemented in regulations so that contracting officers have the authority to change what they do. For example, the Women’s Procurement Program took TEN YEARS from law to initial implementation in 2010, and another six years to remove contract award ceilings and establish authority for sole source awards. 

When you get wind of a possible change, think: What outcome do you want, and why is it important to you? What would have to happen for the outcome you want? Understand the procedures, time line, and players. Who has the power to affect the outcome you want, and how could they help?

Be aware of the timeline for federal legislative decisions. Over the course of the fiscal year, hundreds of bills are proposed. Less than 20% of those bills ever come to a vote! Major acquisition policy changes are usually folded into budget bills because budget bills have to pass.

Remember that what contracting officers can do and how they do it – including setting aside competitions for small business, and awarding contracts - is set by regulation, and executed by interpretation. How much they can spend is set by the budget. Acquisition policy changes through a defined process of laws and regulations.

Congress aims, and frequently fails, to pass the annual budget by the time the new fiscal year starts on October 1st. A few months before that, the proposed changes to acquisition have become more clear. That's the perfect time to find out which changes might affect you. How likely are those changes to move forward?

The budget and related proposals that the White House sends to Congress look very different once 535 members in both Houses of Congress work them over. Congressional committees feed the legislative process. If you’re targeting, say, three Federal departments, bills that affect what they’re buying might pass through as many as six different committees before the final spending bill comes up for a vote.

Most of us don’t have time to go through these reports, but we can quickly tap the industry associations we belong to that have advocacy mandates and teams. These associations may be industry specific, like the National Defense Industries Association, Armed Forces Communication and Electronics Association, or the Society of American Military Engineers, or horizontal ones, like Women Impacting Public Policy or the National Contract Management Association. They can usually give you a status update, tell you what and where to watch, and even suggest what you might want to ask your legislative representatives.

Relationships

Members of Congress have the power to change acquisition policy and agency budgets. Both of those things affect our access to federal contract opportunities. These legislators are constantly making decisions that affect you. If you are already in regular contact with your senators and member of congress, and with their staffers who handle your issues, great! If not, find out who they are, and get to know them. You will be able to engage them more effectively over the long run if your first meeting isn’t to tell them you’re unhappy and want immediate action.

Get in touch with your Senators and your member of congress. Not sure who they are? Start with www.Congress.gov. Look up the district/state office as well as the D.C. Contact info listed. Get to know the Legislative Affairs staff who handle the issues you’re most concerned about. Your ongoing contact is at least as likely to be these staffers – who control access to the legislators – as it is the Members themselves.

Make an appointment during a recess break to introduce yourself. Begin by thanking them for their work, and make particular mention of their past or current support on issues that matter to you.  Let them know what you do, how many employees you have, the economic impact your business has in their state or district. Consider inviting your legislator to visit your company.

When’s the right time to do this? During the legislative break, or “recess.” In the final few month of the legislative year, Congress generally has short recess for Memorial Day. The longer summer recess is typically from late July until just after Labor Day (check the specific dates at www.congress.gov). That’s when most members are back in their district, eager to hear from you, and when it’s easiest for you to reach them.

Requirements

Once you’ve made friends – or at least gotten acquainted – with your elected representatives, you can talk about your concern.  On day-to-day issues, or when there is no specific legislative decision or regulatory deadline looming, you'll have the greatest impact by making personal calls, emails or visits, and fostering an ongoing dialog. Your members of Congress have to answer constituent phone calls in real time, and that takes staff resources (which are always finite) to respond. That's a good thing. Call them.

To be effective in your outreach, pick your passion. Keep the focus narrow.  Be as specific as possible about the proposed law or regulation, why and how it affects you. Succinctly express your concerns, and ask for the action and outcome you want.  

 If broad statements by the President or other federal leaders are the source of your concern about, for instance, whether small business procurement programs will be eliminated or cut, you can tell your legislator why those programs are important to your company, the number of employees and jobs affected, and that you want their staff to be vigilant in supporting and defending those programs at every opportunity. You can ask them for advice on where else they think YOU should be watching and possibly taking action, too. 

Sometimes, your industry association may invite you to take part in a “grassroots” campaign to show your support on an issue. Most typically, they’ll ask you to personalize and send a basic letter or email to your elected representatives. It takes very little time, and such efforts do add up. These letters usually have the most value when an issue is coming up for a critical vote or legislative decision point. The upside is that these letters are generally well-written, state the situation and the “ask” clearly. If your interests are aligned with your association’s, you can generally send these communications with high confidence and minimal effort.

Similarly, showing up en masse for a hearing on Capitol Hill can show legislators that there is broad support for, or opposition to, a proposal. I was one of the hundreds of women business owners who packed a hearing room to overflowing when Senators gathered to hear testimony on the importance and economic impact of the WOSB sole source provision. That hearing contributed to Congress' decision a few months later to pass the WOSB sole-source authority into law.

Engage your legislative contacts in dialog. They’re on the inside of the lawmaking process. Ask if they’re following the issue, and what else they might be able to tell you about what’s happening! Remember that there are also things you can do to help them. Legislators like to be seen as supporting the business community. They often host or speak at events.  Ask the staff if they’re hosting any upcoming forums, panels or roundtables for business. Explore whether you might be a good fit for the event, or whether they’d like you to help promote the event. Let them know if you’d be available to speak. If there aren’t any events, but you have an idea for one, share your thinking and perhaps even offer to help organize it!

Finally, ask them what you want them to do.  If there is a specific vote coming up on a provision in a bill (like we saw a couple years ago, to propose the sole source provision in the WOSB program), then talk about that. 

Thank them again, and follow up regularly.


Wed, 05/31/2017 - 3:35pm

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