When meandering through the West Mall, one is certain to catch a glimpse of dozens of vibrant student organizations fundraising, informing and advocating for a variety of causes. While these student organizations excel at spreading their messages, many groups are forgetting to use our city’s most important asset to cause the change they wish to see. At an impressive 308 feet, the Texas Capitol puts the Washington, D.C. capitol building to shame. The 150 state representatives and 31 state senators are not simply in office to pass questionable legislation; they are here for our use, too.
On the weekend of Oct. 22, alongside a number of students from around the country, I lobbied at the D.C. offices of U.S. Senators John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison to co-sponsor the Syria Sanctions Act of 2011. Though the senators receive lobbyists often, they rarely encounter lobbyists from Texas. While I was fortunate to experience lobbying in our nation’s capital, I still have access to an entire network of influential politicians in Austin, as do the rest of us. UT students need to place a greater importance on lobbying our representatives and senators to achieve the changes we often discuss and rally behind.
Voting is the main mechanism Americans use to select their representatives and have their voices heard. However, after the results of the election are published and many of our chosen politicians lose, apathy begins to invade our system. Americans aged 18 to 24 are generally considered politically apathetic. This stereotype often proves true, as the Economist cites that only 24 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds voted in the 2010 midterm. As a result, politicians do little to cater to this demographic, and many of the political issues we find important, including higher education reform and the international crises and efforts that so many of us advocate in West Mall, are not priorities. Increased voting and campaign participation may demonstrate the youth’s interests in politics, but a more influential demonstration is lobbying. Entering a politician’s office and demanding that our voices be heard is the most powerful message we can transmit.
Lobbying seems a daunting task, involving business-casual dress, concrete facts about current and previous legislation and, the most intimidating of all, interacting with members of the governing elite. However, normal citizens interacting with these elites is vital to the democratic process. While the lure of continued reelection is a powerful motivator to ensure that our elected officials represent our viewpoints, decisions on which pieces of legislation to create or support falls to these representatives. Furthermore, if one’s elected officials’ political views fail to align with one’s own views, important issues will remain unresolved, ignored or mishandled.
Lobbying gives the average citizen an opportunity to communicate which issues are of importance and to educate our elected officials, who often are ill-informed. In D.C., my colleagues and I made our appeals to one of Hutchison’s staffers and one of Cornyn’s staffers. The senators use these employees to research legislation, investigate domestic and international conflicts and inform policy choices. As many of the staffers are recent college graduates, lobbyists who procide information about complicated, convoluted issues can immensely benefit policy decisions.
While lobbying itself is a powerful action, what you do while lobbying also influences policy makers. Bringing along petitions with hundreds of signatures or dozens of hand-written letters urging representatives to take action or delivering a giant, hand-painted banner, as we did in D.C., further demonstrates one’s commitment to an issue. The trick of this political game is to raise your voice loud enough so the representatives have no choice but to listen.
The results of my lobbying experience were fruitful, as we better educated the staffers on the situation in Syria, argued persuasive points as to why the senators should co-sponsor the legislation and warned of repeated follow-ups until our demands were met. Both staffers responded positively, and our cause has now advanced. If student activists at UT realize the importance of lobbying our policy makers and take their protests from West Mall to the Capitol, they may begin to effect change.
Waliany is a Plan II and government senior.