Why the Executive Branch matters

I find, when I talk with nonprofit folks about advocacy, they immediately center in on legislative lobbying.

That’s what we think of when we think about advocacy and policy change, because it’s the most visible (and vocal) arena for advocacy activities.

And it’s important. And, of course, legal, for nonprofit organizations as a part of our operations and our engagement in creating the world as it should be.

But it’s not enough.

Nonprofit organizations can get a lot done through regulatory change, agency monitoring, and pressure on the executive branch, and it can often be done more quietly, with less risk to the organization and comparatively less time investment. You’ve got fewer targets, with this kind of strategy, so your change can be leveraged through a tighter set of relationships, and executive branch officials are, for the most part, committed professionals with considerable issue expertise in their particular field who are responsive to fact-based arguments about efficacy and efficiency, in ways that elected officials are, well, not always.

But, sometimes, especially when legislative avenues are closed off for political or technical reasons, executive branch actions become just as high-stakes as legislative ones. And just as contentious.

And, even someone like me, who thought that I had a pretty broad vision of what advocacy is and can be and should be, learns a lot in those battles about the importance of having an executive branch strategy from the beginning, and of investing just as much in developing it as in planning out a legislative approach.

Today’s battles over immigration reform are, unfortunately, a good example of this. In the next two years, (warning: intentionally understated prognosis ahead) very little is likely to happen in Congress on immigration reform. There will be litigation, especially as states continue to forge ahead with ill-advised schemes that seem destined to accomplish little but line the pockets of Kris Kobach and other Federation for American Immigration Reform lawyers who try to help states defend indefensibly unconstitutional provisions. But there will be precious little legislation, and probably not even that many half-hearted efforts to fake it, since the debates are politically costly and failure almost assured.

But much can happen, and, indeed, must happen within the realm of executive action, both to stem the harm wrought on immigrant communities today and, at the same time, to keep advocates engaged and focused and ready, so that we don’t suffer the kind of entropy that could undo our next great chance at success.

Too often, we’re guilty of excusing executive inaction on major policy challenges, of even marginalizing an office as important as the President of the United States, pretending that all that executive officials can or should be expected to do is exhort the legislative body, make speeches, and encourage advocates to continue the fight. Some pro-immigrant groups, and immigrants themselves, have done some critically important work over the past several months to highlight the weakness and ultimate tragedy of this approach, pushing instead for tangible action on issues fully within the range of executive authority: easing employer sanctions enforcement (and ending workplace raids), improving detention conditions, exercising discretion in dealing with cases of immigrant young adults, shifting budgets to workable approaches, improving processing times for those eligible for immigration relief.

And they’re winning some important victories, gains which are far more than just symbolic but, indeed, will make the kinds of tangible improvements in people’s lives that advocacy is all about, especially the announcement this spring that the Obama Administration will effectively cease deporting undocumented college students because, um, can you think of a bigger waste of financial resources and human potential?

If we are successful in pushing the executive branch on more of these real gains, it will mean not only reduced suffering in communities around the country, as well as sharpened advocacy skills (that we can then unleash on legislative targets), but also an opportunity to “test” limited versions, so to speak, of certain policy changes that we will ultimately need to push in Congress: we need a chance to prove that the sky won’t fall down if we stop deporting immigrant mothers, as obvious as that case may seem.

What within your policy “wish list” could be accomplished through executive action? How can your legislative advocacy skills translate to that context? What do you need to start doing differently, in your advocacy work, to make this shift? How could executive branch gains spill over into your legislative work?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s