Putting the 'FUN' in Washington's Dysfunction

“Political life at Washington is like political life in a suburban vestry.” - Oscar Wilde

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As long as you’re happy, honey.

That’s the reply whenever I try explaining my career to family or friends outside DC. Which makes me wonder… does anyone outside of DC understand how this town works? Why it works as it does? If they did, would it change their opinions on the city for the better or worse?

We’ve heard from many in the developer community that understanding how DC works would go far in helping them understand the policies that it produces. Let’s break down some of the common misconceptions of “the swamp” here. We’ll give you a glimpse of what and why our policy team does what we do.

First: What’s “Policy”?

We use that word all the time as a shorthand for the stuff that DC or Brussels produces. In a nutshell, policy can be defined as a broad strategy that the government uses to do its job. It includes “a system of laws, regulatory measures, courses of action, and funding priorities concerning a given topic promulgated by a governmental entity or its representatives.” It’s a method of getting things accomplished legislatively and making a jurisdiction function over long periods of time— it’s not just about short-term fixes or single legislative acts. Policy includes how the government thinks about trade or agricultural regulations or foreign relations, and works to combine the thinking of those in power to determine how the world should look and behave given the many social and economic domains they oversee.

What does a day in DC look like?

The day to day is similar to other offices: meetings, conferences, webinars. Not that glamorous if we’re being honest. It’s the who and where however that often causes the myths to take hold. While I do love a cozy cashmere and a glass of Shiraz as much as Olivia Pope, I assure you that our agendas differ greatly.

Our schedules involve meeting with members of Congress and the Administration to inform them about developer policy needs. We talk to the administrative agencies and attend their workshops. There we discuss crucial developer issues. This primarily consists of explaining how different technologies and processes work behind the scenes. We assess how the laws and regulations drafted or enacted not only impact the developer community but the tech space in general.

When lawmakers seek to problem solve, and the law they draft sounds great on paper, we get to tell them that it either won’t solve the problem or isn’t technically feasible. (“Secure” encryption with a back door, I’m looking at you here).

We attend and speak at conferences or on panels on technology issues, representing the developer community to the best of our ability. DC panel events are where political influencers (journalists, policy staff) go to get their fill of information en masse.

We like what we do and who we represent, and will talk about it to anyone. We want to educate those in policy as to what software development is really like. By educating (aka “lobbying”) policymakers we impact and ensure that the developer community’s opinions are well represented as legislation or policy initiatives move forward.

Onto the myths…

“All lobbyists are evil.”

Lobbying isn’t nearly the game of cloak and dagger (and bribery!) that some would think. Lobbyists must be registered with the government and abide by complex legal reporting. Thus, the level of sneaky business is kept in check.

Apparently, some think that lobbyists only represent “special interests,” and not average people. First, there is an association for everything and everyone in DC. Literally hundreds. Every interest is as special as the individuals behind it want it to be. Second of all, the system actually does represent average people — albeit not in the way you’d think it would.

It is not the advocates themselves that are inherently evil (mostly...but that’s a blog for another day), but rather the cause itself that you personally disagree with. The gun, bank, and even tobacco lobbies get all the bad press here, but there are two sides to every story—and (at least) two lobbyists for every conversation. Both side’s opinions and interpretations of facts are important to ensure a holistic debate and to craft well thought out and thoroughly educated policy. Factoring in a variety of viewpoints and counterarguments allows for stronger, more durable legislation that the public can generally live with. Differing views represented in the lawmaking process keep industries and their facts in check and make sure that everyone with skin in the game is properly heard. Could viewpoints or facts change over time? Yep, that’s why we keep at it.

“The place is overrun with lobbyists!”

While not every group is as contentious as the ones mentioned above, there are only as many lobbyists as there are groups that want to be heard. What about all the groups for medical research or books or mushrooms? Or the ones lobbying for the puppies? (Don’t look at that good boy’s face and say he’s part of the swamp!) And even if you’re not a fan of the puppies, there apparently is even an advocate for reptile keepers. (You read that right—a lobbyist for everything here.) The point to take away is that everyone in a democracy deserves to be heard, and that means sending your champion into the fray to fight for your favorite cause.

Case in point, our team at the Developers Alliance. While there are without a doubt a number of large companies among our members, the bulk of our membership is made up of developer-owned businesses. Many, if not most, work at small businesses or are working as independent consultants/freelancers. Groups like us and the aforementioned, usually work on behalf of the constituencies not far removed from the average person.

“Lobbyists have no-one’s interests but their own in mind.”

Our work is dependent on the developer community and its opinions. We ask for those opinions regularly because we want to make sure that we are accurately representing those views to the policymakers here in DC. Have an idea or question? Tell us! We are always here to chat (really, e-mail me!) The more input we get from you, the better we are at our jobs, advocating for developer interests. This fact is why many organizations fund research work and regularly send surveys (like our most recent on COPPA’s impact on developers) — to give lawmakers both statistics on their respective industry, and tangible feedback on what that the people working in it think. The views of these groups evolve as the views of the members within them evolve, constantly propelling the legislative agenda in Washington and Brussels forward.

The Facts

If there is an advocate for everything, then what is the point of all this racket? Well, and don’t laugh when I say this, but… efficiency. Let’s break down the facts on a few things.

We all learned back in grade school how a bill gets passed. Given that some bills can lead to (and in all fairness, require) tens of thousands of pages of legislation and associated regulations, you may ask who actually writes all of that, and better yet, how do they flesh out the actual policy points of what goes in it. This leaves quite a burden on legislative offices and agencies. What you may not realize is that the average office size for a member of the U.S. House of Representatives is fourteen, and the U.S. Senate is thirty. This number includes the member themselves, a dedicated communications team, front office staff, HR, IT, and staff responding to the flood of calls and letters on behalf of the member. That could make up thirty people, right? Just wait, there is more to fit in there. Several caseworkers are needed to handle constituent services: everything from the staffer processing your flag requests to those dealing with the red tape of Washington on your behalf. Finally, of course, the congressperson’s legislative staff. They handle everything the member is voting on from tariffs to transport to trees and tech. Needless to say, these staffs are spread thin.

To put this in perspective, each House of Representatives district is meant to represent an average of 711,000 citizens. With current staff sizes that breaks down to about 1 staffer for every 51,000 constituents. Comparing that to city council terms, most major city councils in the U.S. are hovering in the 7-10k range of constituents per staffer. Even the hyper-inflated Los Angeles city council, who has one staffer for every 35,000 constituents, has significantly less than the workload congressional staff faces. Obviously, the issues facing politicians on the national level are also often more serious than that of city councils. I assure you that congressional staff are far younger than you think, not remotely paid well, and covering way more issues at once than you’d expect. Take a look for yourself, bearing in mind that the District is one of the most expensive cities in America. For context, my portfolio as a Senate staffer covered 7 different legislative areas — a pretty standard number for staff in these offices. Hill staff are, by and large, smart people who know how to hustle. At the end of the day, however, there is only so much they can realistically juggle when handed all of America’s problems.

Due to all of this, the private sector often steps in to educate and advocate, so Congress can make informed decisions on what can and should be done. According to their respective representative associations’ views of course. For all that can be said about the private sector, a capitalist system is efficient—at least in comparison to the alternative. Contrary to ‘DC fixers’ on TV, threats and shady activities will get you disbarred and disowned. There are rules, and folks here follow them or can independently follow the consequences. No reputable trade group in town wants one of their members or staffers going rogue as it compromises their entire organization and individual members. Fun facts — folks on the Hill can’t accept tips or gifts, can’t let you buy them a drink unless there are no chairs in the room, and often survive on the same kind of leftovers devs devoured after a faculty event in grad school (full disclosure: once a year Taco Bell does throw a reception for Hill staff, and if you’re willing to brave the insane line for a free taco it is in fact pretty clutch).

Hill staffers need to educate themselves on all of the legislative areas and fast. Therefore, they go where the information is the most concentrated — to those aforementioned policy conferences and events that people like us are speaking at. They know if they show up and tune in that we, the industry folks and specialists in the area, can lay out the pros and cons for them in a concise way before they even ask. They have questions, their boss has concerns. They generally want to rebut our stance for fun? We’re happy to chat further and break it down for them, or take their concerns back to our base (you!) and see what answers our collective expertise can provide them. We are policy people. Every argument we make, we are prepared to rebut every counterargument to it or will find someone who can.

When we’re looking to determine our position on an issue, we consult our membership. Trade groups provide information, context, and insight to the lawmakers and their staff so that they can make the best decisions possible for their constituents and the country. We offer an analysis of the bills (or proposed bills) in front of Congress and Administrative agencies based on our experience and suggest tangible fixes on what we don’t like. If there is an issue we can provide education or expertise to, we do. We educate the lawmakers about how proposed legislation will affect not only their districts but many districts across the country that may be very different from the ones they represent, however, it could have a major impact on the nation as a whole. They cast the votes, but we give an opinion, to weigh among many, so they have the tools to make an educated vote.

Why does this legislative process take SO LONG?

Political complications aside, providing education, even with the help of the private sector, is a heavy lift, especially in an extremely fast-growing space like software development. There is a reason folks from all sides are begging Congress to bring back the Office of Technology Assessment. Additionally, we have all learned from the CCPA that hasty legislation can lead to a series of revisions, unhappy citizens, and an inevitably delayed rollout. Not exactly the precedent we want to set. Different industry groups take different approaches to getting work done. In summary, however, Washington and Brussels are built on relationships. The shady strong-arming may look good on the Underwoods, but in reality, it is not really that effective. Such behavior in real life would definitely make you more enemies in town than friends.

Most DC interactions are quite cordial, even when viewpoints don’t align, and I don’t think it’s just because this place is packed with southerners. Pushing through party politics to get to the root of what is truly important to the people — effective laws — is simply what happens. Even if it means grabbing after-hours cocktails with your political frenemy. Yes, things in the era of Trump have vastly impacted this habit, but largely amongst staff, the status quo remains. Members will still happily suffer through a Solidcore or P90X workout together to build bipartisan relationships along with their biceps. Washington is a small town and the policy community here even more so. It is simply unfeasible to work any other way than dealing with your foes to get things done. It’s not all cocktails and schmoozing for the sake of fun. The more trustworthy and experienced in your respective field you are, the more in demand you will be. How do you figure out who is trustworthy and experienced? You get to know your peers. It’s no doubt a process, but the ultimate goal should be a better bill or improved public policy.

Conclusion

In summary, the way the legislative sausage gets made can be a little messy. However, there is a method to the madness. The United States was founded on principles of freedom of speech, the freedom to organize, and the pursuit of happiness. The founding fathers may not have imagined a system with a ‘pursuit’ quite as elaborate as it presently exists, however, the First Amendment protects the system of government advocacy as it is in place today. Many voices, whether they be of organized groups or of individual constituents, make for a representative and informed democracy. In turn, this makes for a stronger union that is prepared to tackle data privacy, AI, deep fakes, patent trolls, platform-to-business relationships, and whatever else the 21st century and beyond has in store.