Cultivating Relationships: It Can Make a Difference on Capitol Hill

Location: 113th

Bill Webb, Executive Director

February 12, 2014

Prior to a becoming Executive Director of the Congressional Fire Services Institute in 1995, I once served as a special assistant to three cabinet secretaries at the U.S. Departments of Education and Labor. As part of my job, I traveled with the secretaries to events across the country facilitating arrangements for their presentations. I learned a great deal from these experiences, — first and foremost that there is a distinct difference between business and vacation travel. For example, on one trip I traveled from North Carolina to Hawaii. We spent two days in Honolulu and never stepped foot onto the beach, but instead, we worked in offices overlooking what looked like very inviting ocean waters. And my wife wonders why I have no desire to return.

The second thing I learned from these experiences is to always incorporate one or two consistent messages in every speech. Former Secretary of Labor Lynn Martin, one of the most politically savvy individuals I had ever met, always took advantage of every speaking opportunity to talk about the glass ceiling – a term to describe a gender barrier that prevented women from greater leadership opportunities in corporate America and other parts of our society. It became her mantra. And as a result, she was able to create greater awareness throughout corporate America about this gender inequity.

So when I became Executive Director, I decided that I would adopt a similar approach to public speaking. One of my central messages to the fire service would be “cultivating relationships” with our elected leaders in Washington, DC. The reason is very simple, and it has everything to do with what former Speaker of the House Thomas “Tip” O’Neill once said: “All politics is local.”

Who elects members of Congress? Not the lobbyists in Washington, but you, the constituent. You can give all sorts of excuses as to why it’s not worth your time and effort to get involved – such as the political system is broken – or what difference will one vote make? But one vote can make a difference. Just ask the people of Florida who voted – and didn’t vote — in the 2000 presidential election. They’ll tell you all about that.

I do believe the fire service has made significant strides throughout the years in becoming more engaged in the legislative process. I base my conclusion in part on the rising trend in phone calls and emails we have received throughout the years from fire officials as well as congressional offices seeking information on the prevailing fire service position on our legislative priorities. I’m rather certain that the other national organizations would say the same about the inquiries they’re receiving.

The more engaged we become, the more likely Congress will listen. If you look at what transpired on Capitol Hill over the past few months, you’ll understand that our elected leaders are listening. Case in point: The FY2014 Omnibus spending measure, which funds the federal government through the remainder of this fiscal year, increased funding for FIRE/SAFER by $5 million. Although this might not seem like much, it is when you consider that the Department of Homeland Security budget was cut by $336 million. The measure also maintained funding for USFA at the FY13 level of $44 million.

A second example. When members of the fire service learned of a provision in the Farm Bill that could potentially have inadvertently overturned fire-safe cigarette laws in all 50 states, we spoke in one voice and Congress listened. The Farm Bill passed without the controversial language.

And then there was the whole issue of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and how it might impose an undue financial hardship on the volunteer fire service by forcing a number of volunteer and combination departments to provide health insurance for their members. The fire service spoke-out in one clear voice to officials on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue about the potential fiduciary impact this could have on many departments across the nation. The message was clear and consistent. The national organizations developed talking points and memos outlining what the message should be, and most fire service leaders delivered this message to their elected officials. The end result is that the Administration released final regulations stating fire departments will not be required to cover their volunteer members under the employer shared responsibility provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

The Congressional Fire Services Institute has the distinct honor of hosting the annual National Fire and Emergency Services Dinner and Seminars program in Washington, DC. This year’s program takes place April 30-May 1. Searching for a theme, we looked no further than that central message I’ve been attempting to deliver for the past 20 years: Cultivating Relationships.

For these two days, Congress looks forward to meeting with their fire service constituents on Capitol Hill. They are eager to hear what’s on your mind. And if they don’t, they should. They need to hear both the good and bad – what they’ve done right and where they should focus more attention.

The CFSI program offers a unique experience to learn about the inner workings of the legislative process and policy implementation. Networking opportunities abound to meet federal agency officials and national association professional who advocate for the fire service on Capitol Hill. Interaction with federal legislators can only serve to enhance greater awareness about our needs, our challenges and our legislative priorities. That is why fire and emergency services officials should attend, and why city and town officials should encourage them to attend.

I would encourage you to visit the CFSI website for more information about the 26th Annual National Fire and Emergency Services Dinner and Seminars program. We look forward to hosting the event and we look forward to seeing you there. If you have any questions, please contact us at 202-371-1277.