Hitting the Hill

Bishops lobby legislators on Sudan, health care, AIDS funding
October 31, 2004

The night before they descended on Capitol Hill, 10 bishops were reminded of what they have in common with their congressional legislators. “You are all elected, you all have constituencies and you also hear from your people -- mostly when they are unhappy,” teased Maureen Shea, director of the church’s Office of Government Relations.

The bishops were part of Bishops Working for a Just Society, a group working on public policies for justice and the poor. They spent one September day lobbying their congressional legislators about comprehensive health-care reform, genocide in Sudan and funding for the global AIDS pandemic. The policy issues were chosen based on positions of past General Convention and Executive Council decisions.

Before lobbying, the bishops spent time in workshops to help their effectiveness in meeting with legislators. Policy experts Henry Simmons, president of the National Coalition on Health Care, and retired Ambassador Philip Wilcox, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, helped the bishops digest complex issues.

Welcome reception

Dressed in suits, purple shirts and collars, the bishops stood out among the lobbyists and staffers in the hallways of the Capitol office buildings. Most bishops had at least two or three appointments with members of congress and senators from their dioceses.

Bishop Neff Powell of the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia began his meeting with Rep. Bob Goodlatte by thanking him for supporting recent legislation urging the United States and world community to take steps to end the crisis in Sudan. Powell then asked Goodlatte to consider comprehensive health-care reform to secure coverage for every American as advocated by the National Coalition on Health Care. The coalition boasts a broad alliance of supporters including businesses, unions, insurance companies and religious denominations, including the Episcopal Church.

“I’m not seeing anything now from either of the parties [on comprehensive reform] that does anything more than pick around the edges,” Powell told Goodlatte. Chicago Bishop William Persell visited Senator Richard Durbin for a second year of lobbying, focusing on comprehensive health-care reform. After that meeting, Durbin said the fact that 44 million Americans lack health insurance is a crisis that must be confronted.

“Now is the time to move from dialogue to the next level,” he said. “An important part of that transition is to have groups outside of Congress come together around a core set of principles for health-care reform. The religious community is a vital part of that effort."
Durbin said he urged Persell to reach out to other faith communities to work toward a common solution.

Seeking deeper conversation

For Bishop Andrew Smith of the Diocese of Connecticut, visiting staff and legislators was a chance to nourish relationships that will lead to deeper conversations and more action. “We’d bring up concerns, and the connection they made with us was gratifying,” said Smith.

“We went in their offices acknowledging these are complex issues and the work they do is hard,” said Suffragan Bishop James Curry of Connecticut. “Legislators often experience stridency from the religious community, but we are coming to them to build a partnership.”

According to Smith, the best way to nourish the faith community’s relationship with legislators is to encourage members of churches to track their legislators’ actions, thank them for legislative support and address ongoing issues the church is facing.

The church’s domestic policy analyst, John Johnson, pointed to one success helped by Episcopal advocacy. The Senate approved legislation on hate crimes, which gained the support of 200 clergy and 21 bishops, this summer. But success was not overnight -- lobbying first started with the 2000 General Convention. And the lobbying will continue after November’s elections, since the House rejected the measure in October.

Shea said her office encouraged all Episcopalians to arrange visits with their legislators to discuss social-justice issues. “It is easiest to meet with elected officials when they are in home districts,” she said. “There is an obligation for them to listen, and they need to hear from their constituents."

Bishops participating in the Capital Hill visit included Mark Andrus of Alabama, William Persell of Chicago, Andrew Smith and James Curry of Connecticut, Orris Walker and Rodney Michel of Long Island, Robert Ihloff of Maryland, Martin Townsend of Newark, Neff Powell of Southwestern Virginia and John Chane of Washington.

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