Transcript of Defending Life

Season 9, Episode 2 - "Politics 101"

Introduction by Fr. Frank: Is the Church getting tougher on pro-abortion politicians? And are you? Join us now for this and more on Defending Life.

Fr. Frank: Hello, I'm Fr. Frank Pavone from Priests for Life and welcome once again to our Defending Life Program. I'm joined today by Connie Marshner, president of the American Catholic Council. I've worked with Connie for the past 10 years in Washington, DC on various pro-life efforts. Connie, welcome to the program.

Connie Marshner: Thank you, it's great to be here.

FF: We have a lot of viewers out there who are pretty frustrated with the political and legislative process and of course we ourselves often talk about how those that we put in office have betrayed the very purpose of government when they fail to defend the most innocent and vulnerable human lives.

What we want to talk about today is to give people a sense of what politics is. What the legislative process is like. To step back a little bit and say let's understand this process better so that understanding it better, we can be more encouraged about how we can make a difference. So tell us what is politics all about?

CM: I'll tell you what politics is all about. Politics is all about power. It's not about persuasion although that's a step toward it. It's about power. Pro-lifers sometimes think if their Congressman or State Senator returns their phone call or gives them an appointment to see them that they've got it made. That's not power. That's access. It's easily confused. Power is when they've had the visit with the Congressman, with the Legislator and they leave and they exchange pleasantries and after they've walked out the door the Politician sits there and says "I better do what they want me to because otherwise they could get me unelected." That's power. have the saints and you have the sinners. This is not good theology this is good politics. You've got the people who are always going to do the right things for the right reasons. Paragons of virtue. Jessie Helms comes to mind, Rick Santorum, Senator Brownback. They're always going to vote pro-life no matter what. And you've got the opposite number, the real sinners. Hillary Clinton comes to mind, Senator Schumer. They're always going to do the wrong thing. But most of any elected body are in the mushy middle and they really don't have convictions and they can be persuaded to vote this way and they can be persuaded to vote that way.

So the question is, what persuades them? It's very easy. Politicians understand pleasure and pain and there's one thing that every politician has in common and when the pro-life movement can figure out how to connect our issue to their concerns, we'll start winning. And their interests are very simple: re-election, re-election and re-election. When we can link the pro-life issue with the re-elections chances of a politician then they will take us seriously. We haven't succeeded in doing that.

We are still so naive that pro-lifers go into a Legislator and they talk about the humanity of the unborn and they give pages and pages of documentation and medical evidence and scientific evidence. All that's great but you know what, it's naive to think that's going to control how they vote. Very few of them vote on principle. When you're sitting there giving them all this information, they're sitting there thinking, "click, click, click, click, how many votes do they control? How many people do they control back home who can turn out and unelect me next time around?"

FF: They could be sitting there and saying, "yes this person is right and all these facts are fact but that's not what's relevant to me at this point."

CM: That's exactly it.

FF: "Who can these people influence? Who can they get to the poles, who can they not get to the polls?"

CM: How do we communicate that to a legislator? Very simply. When there's a vote coming up - if they get one phone call from our side and they get ten phone calls from the Planned Parenthood side, it's an easy choice. After all, we're talking about the mushy middle here. Put their finger in the wind. Which way is the wind blowing? That's the way I'll go." Well, we're not matching them. We are not matching them. When these judicial nominations are coming up, when legislative matters come up, when pro-life bills are up, they sit and they wait. They wait for the phone to ring. They wait for the e-mails to come. They wait for the US mail to come. They wait for the home office to call in its daily report of what's going on in the district. And what do they hear from the pro-life side? Silence. Far, far too many districts, far too many cases they hear silence because our people are not organized, our people are not turning out, they're not activated. They're convicted. Pro-lifers believe intensely. But we're not out there doing the things that we have to do in a representative government to get your voice heard.

FF: It's almost like we're so focused on the issue and necessarily so. It consumes us. It's crystal clear to us and we become more and more immersed in the issue and how to articulate it and you're saying we have to broaden the scope here of what we're looking at. There are other dynamics in place here aside from the truth of the issue and the power of the people.

CM: Absolutely, absolutely. We have to put ourselves in the position of the politicians and say, "What are they concerned about? How can we link our issue to their future?"

FF: What are some of the ways of thinking now, on the grassroots level, that people that are watching us now that want to make the difference need to start change? We have to change the fabric of our own thinking. What are some of the specific ways?

CM: Well, let me challenge everyone who is watching us to a question. When was the last time you picked up the telephone and called an elected representative to lobby them on anything? When was the last time you wrote a letter to a Legislator? Do you even know the names of your State Legislators and of your Federal Legislators? I've had people tell me, "Oh yeah, he's from that county and we elected him and he's a Congressman. He's in the State Capital." That's not a Congressman, that's a State Representative. Most states have a House and a Senate - upper chamber and lower chamber. The Senate is the upper chamber. That means that most people have a State Legislator, a State Representative and a State Senator. Then everybody has a US Congressman. He goes to Washington. Everybody has two US Senators. They go to Washington. Right there, that's five people. You should have their names, their addresses, their e-mails, their phone numbers on your refrigerator for easy reference.

FF: How would they find that out if they don't have that information?

CM: You can go to the public library and get it. You can go to the web and get it. They probably are sending you stuff periodically in the mail because they want your vote. That stuff is public information, it is no secret. You should have it and you should call. You pay their salaries so you have a right to communicate with them.

FF: I think the next question a lot of people would have is - if I have these people's phone numbers on my refrigerator how do I know when I need to contact them and how do I know what I need to tell them to do?

CM: That depends on the issue. Watching EWTN you probably hear when there is a big vote coming up or a big piece of legislation. Most everybody is on somebody's e-mail list who's an activist - who is watching our show here today. They're an activist of some kind. They get e-mail lists, they get newsletters, they're subscribed to different things. There are so many good groups out there that are giving the information in a timely fashion. Listen to talk radio, reading the newspaper. When you hear that there is a fight in the US Senate over a nomination of so and so to such and such judgeship and the Senate is going to have to vote on it, don't just say "Oh, isn't that interesting." Say, "I wonder how my Senators are going to vote on that nominee? Do I like that nominee? I do. Well, I don't want to leave it up to chance whether or not my Senator is going to vote for that confirmation, for that appointment. I'm going to call my Senators and tell them how I want them to vote."

You know there's a rule on Capital Hill, Father. For every single phone call they get in a large Senate office they assume there were 100 people who felt the same way but didn't call. So when people say, " Oh it doesn't make any difference, I just get the receptionist." Yes, of course you get the receptionist but you know what? She's sitting there with a log book and she's writing down your name and your zip code because they want to make sure you vote for them. What you say, they do keep track of it. "Oh it doesn't do any good, I just get a form letter back." Yeah, you get a form letter but guess what? If you got the form letter that means you got logged into the computer, you were a constituent contact and your contact was logged and they know. And when the vote comes up the Legislator is going to say to his staff, "check the log for me." "Tell me what the mail is on this." There is a person in the office whose job it is to keep track of all that and say "well we had 275 for and 350 against." And they'll say "well, my constituents want me to vote against this so let's push it in that direction." We are winning nothing at that level. We are losing that fight. Because time after time after time the constituent contacts are coming from the other side.

A word if I may about effective contact. Pre-printed postcards are the least effective constituent contact. Everybody knows that it's easy to sign a post card. Oh, they're not the least effective. The least effective is a signed petition. What's effective: a personal visit. Ask for a personal visit is the most effective.

The next most effective is contacting by phone or in person the local office. Every politician in Washington has a local office. You live in a Congressional District. The Congressional District may have one or may have several offices. They all have staff. That staff usually does nothing except handle social security questions and veterans benefits and things like that. If a constituent shows up on their front door and says, "I want to talk about this pro-life bill in Congress," the staff thinks the sky is falling. And they think, " Oh my gosh, people are really concerned about this." And they get on the phone to Washington and they say, "You better decide what you're going to do about this because the constituents are really upset." And then action happens.

So visiting the local office if you can't visit Washington, telephone calls, e-mails. For Washington, e-mails now a days are better than US mail because they still are having to do the disinfecting of the mail and all that and that's going to go on for probably a long time. So e-mails really are read in Washington. So that's the effective contact.

Don't expect to have a long conversation, don't expect to change their mind, don't expect to give them a philosophical lesson, a biological lesson. You just say, "I vote for you, I'm a registered voter, I live in your district and I want you to vote this way."

FF: Yes, I think sometimes what holds back a lot of people from calling their representatives and saying "Please vote for this bill" is that they feel they don't know enough about the bill, about the reasons for it, the reasons against it. You're saying they don't have to enter into that whole argument or explanation. They just have to say.... it's like raising your hand - "I'm here, vote yes."

CM: Very well said. Very well said. You are not writing a dissertation. You're just connecting your issue and their future. It's a numbers game. Enough contact from our side is what they're needing.

FF: A brief lesson about how a bill comes up in the first place, how it comes into law. I think if people go back - this is like going back to eighth grade social studies - but it's important for us to remind ourselves of this otherwise we forget how much of a role we can play..

CM: Absolutely. The sixth grade civic text books are still pretty good but there is a lot that they don't tell you. In order to get a bill.... before it comes for a vote, you have usually a two-year process that begins with a vision. The vision can be that of a elected representative or it can be a vision of his constituents who goes to him and says "Senator, I'll support you in your election next fall if you promise me that after you're elected you will introduce this bill." Many things come about because a constituent at the campaign level, before the guy is even in office gets a pledge that "I'll take that bill under my wing." That's the first step. You get somebody willing to carry the bill.

Then, he gets elected, you come back to him, knock on the door, "I helped you get elected, remember you promised me you'd introduce this. Here it is." Now they've got to draft the bill. That's a very delicate process because you've got a legislative counsel and lawyers who want to tinker with it and it's got to fit somewhere at the federal level into the federal code, the US code and at the state level, into the state code. You need your own lawyer who can advise you on whether the way they are writing this proposal is what you really want. That can be tricky and time consuming.

Your go through that hurdle. You get the bill written. Then your sponsor takes it to the floor and says, "I'm introducing this bill today." That's called "putting it in the hopper."

Now what happens then? It gets referred to a committee. Depending on what the bill has in it it can be referred to a committee that's going to kill it or that's going to want to pass it.. That's where politics comes in. Politics has been in it all along but there is another level of politics here because what committee it gets referred to. You should know what committee you want it referred to. You should know that based upon what the content is. If it's got anything that can be connected to education and depending on whose on the education committee.

In Washington there are sub-committees. Umpteen different subcommittees. Which subcommittee do you want it to go to? If you've got a friend who's a chairman on this subcommittee maybe that's where you want the bill to be sent even though content wise you could make a case it should go to this subcommittee. You want to go where your friends are so you get it referred to the right subcommittee. The right subcommittee can pass it to the committee. They have to meet and discuss it and say "OK, we'll vote this out to the full committee." Then the full committee has to meet. Then the full committee says either, "we'll pass it out or we'll kill it" or they may just never get around to it. That's where the staff is important. Because the staff basically gives orders to the politician. "We want to pass this, we want to kill this, here's the information you need. Here's what you want to have in the hearing." The staff does all the work.

If you know people who have college age kids who are looking for careers urge them to be staffers on Capitol Hill because there is such a crying need for pro-life, godly staffers. It's a great career beginning. Many people go from there to well paid positions in lots of fields. It's an important thing to do. Make friends with the staff.

FF: People feel, " Oh I just talk with staffers so they think that's not significant."

CM: On the contrary. It probably is better than talking to the elected representative. Because the elected representative has 10,000 things on their mind. The staffer has only 2,000 things on their mind. So if you talk to the staff it's more likely to have consequences.

So, subcommittee level, committee level then the committee assuming they pass it of course. All this can take a long time and every step of the way there is room for influence. Hearing - you have to trot out your best witnesses. Phone calls of persuasion. Letters of persuasion. You can lobby an elected representative to vote a bill out of committee. That's perfectly legitimate. So finally the Committee votes to send it to the floor and the floor will schedule it for some point in the future or maybe they won't schedule it.

FF: So the floor, now you are talking about the whole House of Representatives and the whole Senate voting on that.

CM: Right, or comparable bodies at the state level. And then they vote on it. Again it may take months to vote on it. It may be part of a deal. There is a lot of horse-trading. "Well, I really want this bill on dams." "Well, I really want this pro-life bill passed." "Well, I'll tell you what, if you vote for my dam, I'll vote for your pro-life bill."

FF: A lot of that goes on, and connected with that, tell us a little bit about the idea of how sometimes a particular provision can be passed because it's attached to a bill which is talking about something completely different.

CM: And that happens. Suppose I'm the politician whose got the constituency who are saying "get this pro-life bill out. Get this pro-life bill out. We want this pro-life bill. We want this pro-life bill." Now I'm a politician who has to work on this bill. I have constituents and I have to make them happy. You're trying to get the dam passed. Now I would forget about that pro-life bill except that I keep being reminded by my constituents. That's the first place we fail. We don't keep reminding them. So you're working on your dam and you come to me and say, "Listen, I really need your vote on my dam." If I am on top of things I'll say "I don't have any objection to that dam but I really need some help from you in return. I want to add this provision giving these grants to these crisis pregnancy centers, will you help me out on that? Maybe your bill has a section that has some - because after all you're going to be acquiring new land to build your dam - so maybe there is some little welfare provision and my plan here for helping CPC's would help reduce unemployment. That's a connection to welfare. So you have that welfare clause in your bill so how about if we just attach this to your bill and then you and I make a deal. We agree to attach it. You go to your committee. I go to my committee. At the floor we both say, yes, I'll support that motion."

That's how stuff happens. There's nothing dirty about that. There's nothing shameful about that. There's nothing secretive about it except that people don't talk about it. They don't ask the right questions. That's the nature of the business. It's a perfectly honest and honorable way of doing business. The framers of our Constitution in the Federalist Papers wrote about this process because that's how it's supposed to work. The people are supposed to communicate their needs to their elected representatives. That's all we're doing.

FF: To summarize what you're saying here - if we don't communicate with our elected officials, we have abandoned our own opportunity to govern ourselves.

CM: And then we have no right to complain when they don't do what we want them to do -- if we didn't tell them what we wanted them to do in a way that they would understand. It's like everybody says, how can my kids rebel, don't they know I love them? Well, actually no, they don't know you love them. The same things with politicians. "How can they do this, don't they know how we care?" No, they don't because you can't over communicate with politicians and right now the pro-life movement desperately under communicates.

FF: Well I want to thank you for everything that you have done to alert people - really across the country - to this opportunity they have, this obligation they have. The Church has written about this, the Church has taught about this actually for centuries. That when we have a representative form of government our faith itself impels us to be involved. One of my favorite lines from what our own Bishops have written says, "we are not a sect fleeing the world but rather a community of faith called to renew the earth." It's our prayer that our reflections here will help many of our viewers to take on that mindset.

Thanks very much Connie. Thank you, brothers and sisters, for joining us. God bless you.

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