Your Guide to Advocacy: Changing Laws, Changing Lives

Your Guide to Advocacy: Changing Laws, Changing Lives
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(This article will appear in an upcoming issue of Military Officer, a magazine available to all MOAA Premium and Life members. Learn more about the magazine here; learn more about joining MOAA here.)


MOAA has seen victories in its advocacy, and we work to keep up momentum toward our goals, such as concurrent receipt and coverage related to burn pit exposure, for just two examples.


But these aren’t quick wins. Making progress means bringing skills to the table.


Here is an inside look at three levels of advocacy and what we’ve learned over time about how to succeed in each of them.


For beginners, this will be a guide to help introduce them to advocacy. For those with some experience, it will serve as a refresher. And the most advanced will learn how planning and strategizing come into play to ensure their hard work is not lost on a progress-undermining misstep that could damage relationships.


Advocacy 101

Prerequisite: Must have a desire to make a difference.


Sometimes we learn about an issue that needs to be fixed. For example, military contract housing was supposed to be a safe place for servicemembers and their families to live.


Unfortunately, there were far too many cases in which this was not true. MOAA first learned about this from a Reuters report and, shortly thereafter, found out more about the story by asking others to share their experiences with us.


[RELATED: Spouse and Family Resources From MOAA]


Some servicemembers or their spouses were afraid to elevate concerns for fear of retribution.


In other cases, commanders did not know enough about their authorities in these situations, nor did they have access to the contracts with the public-private partnerships (P3s), which contributed to lack of action at the onset of many of these problems.


Action: Let’s say you know one of these families and you want to make a difference. What’s the best way to proceed given the magnitude of this problem?


Using this housing scenario as an example, here are some tips:

  • Keep detailed notes on everything you do and everyone you speak to. Include information such as date, time, phone number, etc.

  • Ask what they have done about it already, including the housing office and chain of command. Most issues should be solved through the offices or through supervisors and commanders.

  • Get as many of the facts as possible: where, who, when, etc. Get photos and firsthand descriptions of what those pictures show.

  • Reach out. Find a compelling voice, as we did in late 2018. A spouse knew of a staff sergeant in the Army who was having trouble resolving a myriad of housing problems. That spouse recommended MOAA get in touch with the staff sergeant, which we did, thus fueling the efforts ahead.

  • Remain part of the solution. MOAA reached out to the installation and then to DoD without any measurable actions. As such, the next level was Congress, where we garnered immediate interest. Families, emboldened by congressional support, agreed to testify on Feb. 13, 2019. Also invited to that hearing were executives from the P3 housing companies and DoD officials. At one point, during the family testimonies about the living conditions, Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) said “I am infuriated by what I am hearing today; this is disgusting.”

[RELATED: Horror Stories From Military Families in Privatized Housing Shock, Outrage Lawmakers]

  • Maintain the wave. Continue to collect testimonies and information to help keep this issue on legislators’ minds.

  • Focus on legislation. The culmination of efforts should be to change laws – or enact new laws – to change lives. During this step, it is critical to secure legislation, either with a standalone bill or inclusion in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) or omnibus legislation that combines several bills.

  • MOAA and others helped secure legislation to improve military housing via the FY 2020 NDAA.


This example follows a problem all the way through legislation to drive improvements. While getting a legislative solution in just over one year is a significant win, there are many other next steps.


Advocacy 201

Prerequisite: Have approved legislation.


More likely than not, new legislation has its own set of implementation challenges. Implementation periods can take a while, appropriations may be needed to fund the effects of the law, and the law must be translated into department policies that comply. All these variables warrant watching.


Here are some of the important steps:

  • Review the legislation thoroughly to ensure you understand all the elements. Often, in a conference committee or in the final draft, details are smoothed out, thus leaving something a little different than what was first envisioned.

  • Pay attention to timelines. Legislation usually gives the “Secretary Concerned” a suspense as to when a report is to be filed or a policy is to be changed. Don’t be surprised if the department in question is late on those deliveries – this is another reason for close and continued scrutiny.

  • If components of the initial legislation are missing, another restart may be in order to make up the difference – but it would be important to know exactly why there are omissions. The continued tracking and following up can take years while transitioning through congresses, as in the current example: Success in the 116th Congress is then followed up during the 117th Congress with many new lawmakers. As a result of that transition, some of the legislators who listened to the heartfelt testimonies in February 2019 are now gone. One must appreciate the complexities of those transitions, elections, partisanship, and what can be a vitriolic environment if one is to survive day to day and Congress to Congress.


[RELATED: The Latest Advocacy News From MOAA]


Advocacy 301

Prerequisite: Must still be in the game.


Remain focused on the good deeds we undertake, and leave partisanship on the sideline. Staying in the game can be frustrating, but the only failure in advocacy is when you call it quits.


Until then, there is always a next year, a next Congress, a next election, etc.


Movement and transition are the norm, requiring patience, experience, and a passion to keep solving problems and making lives better.


MOAA’s motto is “never stop serving,” and that paints a clear picture for successful advocacy.


A Long Road to Success

Some successes take much longer than a year to attain. Now, we’ll examine a decades-old fight to repeal the elimination of the Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) offset from the Survivor Benefit Program (SBP) payments, known as the “widows tax.”


This battle has its roots in the early 1970s, when SBP was created to replace older programs that were ineffective.


In this example, Advocacy 101, 201, and 301 are all rolled into one long 50-year rehashing of each of the lessons above, with an emphasis on tenacity and patience.


[RELATED: Ending the Widows Tax: MOAA President Reflects on Making Repeal a Reality]


Here are some takeaways from that lengthy journey and a roadmap for other successes that may take as long:

  • Enlist an army of those impacted by the legislation you seek. Without a doubt, the key to repealing the SBC-DIC offset was the army of surviving spouses who literally walked the halls of Congress for days and weeks on end. They made the issue personal – and that translates to legislators paying attention.

  • Understand the depths of the challenge. Normally a “pay-for,” or a funding source for the legislation, is the hangup, but who has the authority to bypass that? Is the House or the Senate more capable of using a rule to progress with legislation without a way to pay for it?
    • Understand the role the House Rules committee plays in sorting out legislation as it is being prepared for floor votes.
    • Understand the value of a Motion to Instruct – a method of aligning actions as the chamber conferees enter into a conference committee. But the timing of such is tricky, and the motion must be made before the conferees are appointed.
    • Understand who the key supporters are – some obvious ones are the chair and ranking member of a committee, like the Armed Services Committees in this effort. However, the House Rules Committee, Appropriations, and Budget could also play key roles.
    • Remember that establishing and nurturing relationships can take years. Even with transitions on the Hill, some core leaders are there for decades. Don’t discount their age or party – they maintain a finger on the pulse, and influence many of the more junior legislators. Knowing this, it is important to remember who supported similar issues over the years. Seek them out to introduce legislation that aligns with their other efforts.


As you can see from these examples, and the format working toward “graduation,” advocacy can be difficult and frustrating, with moments of elation and gratification.


MOAA headquarters can not do this alone. It takes support and engagement from our members, our partners in The Military Coalition, and other service organizations. All of us pulling in the same direction works best.


Stay tuned for more opportunities to never stop serving.


MOAA Looks Out For You

MOAA is committed to protecting the rights of servicemembers and their families. Lend your voice and support these efforts today. Because the larger our voice is, the greater our impact will be.


About the Author

Col. Dan Merry, USAF (Ret)
Col. Dan Merry, USAF (Ret)

Merry is a former Vice President of Government Relations at MOAA.