The Power of Consumers to Affect Public Policy

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By Peter Thomas

These days, many people believe that you can only get something done in Washington DC if you hire a lobbyist, pay a lot of money to a political figure, or work through a massive association with enough members to influence policymaking. Some people are even more cynical, believing the deck is stacked against the individual in favor of corporate America. Frankly, it would be naive to think that this point of view is not at least somewhat true, but too often consumers do not fully appreciate the power they hold to affect change in our nation's capital.

For all the moneyed interests and entrenched stakeholders who spend their lives trying to influence the outcome of policy debates to suit their own needs, the fact is that consumers have the power to do the same thing. This power often derives from the integrity of their message and the simple fact that consumers are individuals who seek redress from the federal government for the greater good.

There is no doubt that our political system has become overly reliant on the almighty dollar, where elected officials are forced into perpetual campaign mode. There is also no doubt that this dynamic engenders cynicism about our system of government. Running for office every two years means that members of the House of Representatives must, almost immediately after election, begin political fundraising to prepare for the next campaign. In the Senate, there is some breathing room in this regard as terms run for a six-year period. The countervailing consideration, of course, is that these days, Senate campaigns cost millions of dollars more than typical House races.

The U.S. Supreme Court did not help much in taking financial incentives out of elections when it recently struck down a key component of the main federal law designed to curb some of the abuses in the campaign finance laws. This decision opened the door to allowing corporations to give as much as they would like to political candidates out of corporate profits. This further gives people the sense that our political system is for sale to the highest bidder.

However, in my experience, I have never seen a member of Congress take a political contribution in exchange for a vote on a bill. That is outright corruption, and it rarely happens, at least under the spotlight of the federal process. But there are, in fact, numerous ways that legislators can directly help constituents who contribute generously to their reelection campaigns, and these arrangements take place all the time. The main thing that political contributions give you, as an individual, is access to members of Congress. Attending a political fundraiser allows an individual to meet face-to-face with a key policy maker when it is important to make one's case on policy matters. But that is all a political contribution provides. If the legislator is not convinced in the merits of the proposal, he or she will not support it regardless of one's participation in a political fundraiser.

But what about the rank-and-file individual who wants to participate in the political process but has no intention or interest in funding the reelection campaign of a particular legislator? Are these individuals boxed out of the process? What if the individual is a mere consumer, with no affiliation to a big business, moneyed interest group, or influential stakeholder with roots in a Congress member's district or a senator's state? Is there any role for them in today's Washington, and can they be effective in delivering their message?

In my experience, the answer to these questions is a resounding "YES!" All too often, consumers and individuals with little experience in the ways of Washington can have a profound effect on policy development-far more impact than they realize or anticipate. They can also have unprecedented access to members of Congress simply based on the fact that their representatives were elected to serve them.

If there is one take-away from this commentary, it is that consumers need to have more forceful expectations of their elected representatives and not come sheepishly to Capitol Hill assuming they are largely unable to change public policy for the better. While most legislators, especially those in competitive election cycles, must pay close attention to the vested interests in politics, real politics is all about serving the needs of the people who elected the legislator in the first place. In the often-repeated words of the former Speaker of the House of Representatives during the Reagan years, Tip O'Neil, "All politics is local."

There is perhaps no better illustration of the power of the consumer than the introduction and enactment of state prosthetic and orthotic "parity" laws over the past several years, as well as the introduction of federal legislation to accomplish the same goal across the country with all private insurance plans, including self-insured plans. Now known as the Insurance Fairness for Amputees Act, S. 773, this bipartisan legislation was recently reintroduced in the 112th Congress by Senators Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Tom Harkin (D-IA). It is important legislation that will keep the pressure on Congress and the Obama administration to implement healthcare reform in a manner that meets the needs of amputees and others with physical impairments who require prostheses and orthoses.

To urge your members of Congress to support S. 773, or to support the Injured and Amputee Veterans Bill of Rights, H.R. 805, go to www.naaop.com, click on the Congressional Legislative Action Center box, and send an e-mail to your representatives urging them to co-sponsor these important bills.

The Amputee Coalition has been the driving force behind these state laws for years and is also the driving force behind the federal effort. While it is true that some with deeper pockets in the O&P field have contributed in-kind and financially to increase the likelihood of success, there is no doubt that the parity/fairness legislative initiative sprang from the O&P consumer and has been fueled by the active involvement of O&P users across the country. There is tremendous power in that, and it is being recognized by state legislatures across the country and at the federal level.

This is not to say that consumers do not have organizations they can join to leverage their message with like-minded people. Consumer and disability organizations are prevalent in Washington these days and are extremely active in policy-making. But while most businesses and vested interests take advantage of the financial resources they have to hire expensive lobbyists and give generously to political fundraisers, the one common element with consumer groups is that they are almost always cash-poor. There are a few exceptions such as the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) and a small number of organizations that are usually associated with a foundation of some kind, but the typical consumer or disability organization has very limited resources. Most politicians know this and realize that the strength of the consumer is in the integrity of the message being delivered. More often than not, a message to support a particular bill or take a particular position is seriously considered by members of Congress when there is strong consumer support.

It is for this reason that the cynicism that pervades Washington and our country these days is eclipsed by a sense that, in the end, the system still works in the way it was intended, if not every time, then at least to a large degree. The sense of hope that comes from this realization can truly inspire rank-and-file consumers, what many in Washington call the "grassroots," to roll up their sleeves and become engaged in the process, knowing that they hold the power to really make a difference. This is what is happening with the Insurance Fairness for Amputees Act, and it can grow from there, for the more active the consumer base for a particular set of interests, the more successful and effective one can be in our nation's Capitol and in legislative bodies across the states.

Peter Thomas is general counsel to the National Association for the Advancement of Orthotics & Prosthetics (NAAOP), counsel to the O&P Alliance, and principal with the law firm of Powers Pyles Sutter & Verville, PC. He is a registered lobbyist at the federal level and has been a bilateral transtibial amputee since age ten. For more information, visit www.naaop.org or e-mail