A word, please?

In an­nual tra­di­tion, ad­vo­cates jos­tle to get their is­sues men­tioned

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY FELI­CIA SON­MEZ son­mezf@wash­post.com

Ev­ery year, ad­vo­cates en­gage in a full-on blitz to get their causes a line in the State of the Union.

“In the past you might be hop­ing for him to say the word ‘cli­mate.’ . . . We have much big­ger hopes this year.” Melinda Pierce, Sierra Club leg­isla­tive di­rec­tor

Call it rhetor­i­cal ear­mark­ing. Ev­ery year, in­ter­est groups and in­di­vid­u­als lobby the White House to get their pet pol­icy is­sues or cov­eted causes men­tioned in the State of the Union ad­dress. And ev­ery year, the pres­i­dent, his speech­writ­ers and pol­icy ad­vis­ers have to de­cide which agenda items merit a para­graph or sen­tence, a shout-out or some ex­tra-spe­cial form of recog­ni­tion. This year, gun-con­trol ad­vo­cates are likely to have the spot­light.

The bar­rage of lob­by­ing and jock­ey­ing has be­come a Washington rit­ual that is of­ten re­viled by those on both sides of the process.

“The State of the Union is the most hated speech by many speech­writ­ers,” said Wil­liam McGurn, former chief speech­writer for Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush. “No mat­ter how many times you vow it won’t be­come a laun­dry list, it be­comes a laun­dry list, if only be­cause it is where the pres­i­dent lays out his leg­isla­tive pri­or­i­ties.”

In some cases, the most vo­cal lob­by­ists can be those from the var­i­ous de­part­ments in­side the fed­eral government.

“For some­one toil­ing away on some pol­icy, the State of the Union may be the only chance to el­e­vate that work by get­ting a pres­i­den­tial men­tion,” McGurn said. “Th­ese are the peo­ple who want things men­tioned, and get­ting de­part­ments to boil down their pri­or­i­ties was al­ways a chal­lenge.”

While any one line in a State of the Union speech may not seem to be a mat­ter of crit­i­cal im­por­tance, Bush’s 2003 speech — and the brouhaha that re­sulted from the in­clu­sion of the now-in­fa­mous “16

words” al­leg­ing that Sad­dam Hus­sein had sought to pur­chase ura­nium from Niger — is a re­minder of the con­se­quences that even a sin­gle sen­tence can have.

In­ter­est groups say they pur­sue a scat­ter­shot strat­egy as they lobby to get their is­sues in the speech.

“What we try to do is get our pri­or­i­ties in front of as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble so that you start cre­at­ing some kind of echo ef­fect,” said Ar­turo Var­gas, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Latino Elected and Ap­pointed Of­fi­cials (NALEO).

De­pend­ing on the fo­cus of the or­ga­ni­za­tion, the typ­i­cal chan­nels might in­clude the Of­fice of Pub­lic En­gage­ment, the Domestic Pol­icy Coun­cil or the Of­fice of In­ter­gov­ern­men­tal Af­fairs, as well as Cab­i­net sec­re­taries and de­part­ments ded­i­cated to spe­cific is­sues, such as the Coun­cil on En­vi­ron­men­tal Qual­ity and the Coun­cil of Eco­nomic Ad­vis­ers.

This year, while the process is much the same as it has been in the past, some of those in­volved in lob­by­ing the White House say their bar for success is higher than it has been for pre­vi­ous speeches.

Whereas in re­cent years a vague men­tion of a pol­icy goal might have been viewed as a win, this time, as Pres­i­dent Obama em­barks on a sec­ond term and as Congress re­mains grid­locked, some in­ter­est groups are hop­ing that the White House will by­pass Capi­tol Hill and take ex­ec­u­tive ac­tion.

“In the past you might be hop­ing for him to say the word ‘cli­mate’ — that’s such a big ac­com­plish­ment,” said Melinda Pierce, leg­isla­tive di­rec­tor of the Sierra Club. “We have much big­ger hopes this year. . . . I think the ques­tion coming out of [the in­au­gu­ra­tion] was, what can the pres­i­dent do given that Congress isn’t de­liv­er­ing at all?”

“Ob­vi­ously, we have an­swers to that,” she added.

When it comes to the po­ten­tial cour­ses of ac­tion for the White House, many ad­vo­cacy or­ga­ni­za­tions have made clear that they have spe­cific moves in mind.

Hu­man Rights Cam­paign, the coun­try’s largest gay rights group, is press­ing for an ex­ec­u­tive or­der grant­ing nondis­crim­i­na­tion pro­tec­tions to em­ploy­ees of fed­eral con­trac­tors.

Among the items on an eight-page pol­icy wish list sent by NALEO to the White House last month are leg­isla­tive progress on im­mi­gra­tion and the cre­ation of a White House Of­fice of New Amer­i­cans.

The AFL-CIO would like to see the White House and Congress take a num­ber of big steps on im­mi­gra­tion and fis­cal pol­icy, but it is also press­ing Obama for uni­lat­eral ac­tion that the la­bor group says would help pro­tect work­ers and lead to more jobs and higher wages.

And the Sierra Club is hop­ing for an an­nounce­ment by Obama that the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency will move for­ward on reg­u­lat­ing emis­sions for new coal-fired power plants.

“How spe­cific Obama is in terms of mov­ing us from dirty power to clean en­ergy, or is it talk­ing about a spe­cific rule on car­bon emis­sions from power plants, we don’t know,” Pierce said.

Out­side ad­vo­cates can present a chal­lenge to speech­writ­ers — but so can the de­mands of in­di­vid­u­als within the White House.

Former Ge­orge H.W. Bush chief speech­writer Chriss Win- ston re­called that the pres­i­dent’s chief of staff, John H. Su­nunu, had a habit of telling the White House word­smiths to “leave a hole” in the speech for a piece of news that he would in­sert at the last moment.

“We al­ways nick­named it ‘ the Rab­bit,’ be­cause what­ever that nugget was go­ing to be that he was go­ing to give us later . . . he was go­ing to pull a rab­bit out of the hat,” said Win­ston, who was the first woman to serve as head of the White House Of­fice of Speech­writ­ing.

By the time the date of the speech nears, meet­ings in­side the White House have ramped up from once or twice a week to twice a day, and the fo­cus has turned away from in­clud­ing more agenda items and to­ward trim­ming the speech down — even as the pres­i­dent prac­tices his de­liv­ery in the White House movie the­ater or in the mo­tor­cade on the way to the Capi­tol.

“In the Clin­ton White House, when you’re about a few days out from the speech, we al­ways had re­marks that were prob­a­bly 40 min­utes too long,” said Joel John­son, a former se­nior ad­viser to Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton who is now a man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of the Glover Park Group. “So, it wasn’t about what goes in the speech — it was about what comes out of the speech. . . . And some­times, those de­ci­sions are fairly ar­bi­trary, and some­thing that had been in the speech for weeks comes out in the fi­nal hours.”

Those lob­by­ing for a line in the speech may not know un­til the fi­nal hours, if not dur­ing the speech it­self, whether they have been suc­cess­ful.

And even then, John­son said, success is in the eye of the be­holder.

“Cer­tainly, more en­ergy goes into ad­vo­cacy around the State of the Union than al­most any other gov­ern­men­tal ac­tion — and for rather ques­tion­able long-term re­sults,” he said. ... “There’s noth­ing in that speech that would not have oc­curred to the pres­i­dent or his speech­writ­ers with­out the help of some out­side ad­vo­cate.”

“But nev­er­the­less,” he added, “the process con­tin­ues.”

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