Ezra Klein recently wrote an interesting review of Lawrence Lessig’s Republic Lost. In the review, Ezra cites two political scientists who define lobbying as

a matching grant of costly policy information, political intelligence, and labor to the enterprises of strategically selected legislators.

Ezra summarizes

In other words, lobbyists act like a volunteer, and highly skilled, army for politicians who already agree with them…Perhaps you are a legislator interested both in reforming the nation’s drug laws and in cutting taxes on large corporations. If you focus your time on tax cuts for large corporations, you’ll get an enormous amount of money, aid, and attention from lobbyists. If you spend your time on drug policy, you’ll be ignored and your campaign will be underfunded.         

Time is tight. I get why legislators spend this valuable resource - time – on issues where they can get credit (in the press, with their constituents and political donors, etc.).

I’d like to share a few personal recollections of a legislator who spent a lot of time on an important issue: Representative Donald Payne of New Jersey. Sadly, Congressman Payne passed away two mornings ago, but before he left us he made an impact on Sudan’s human rights crises.

Most Americans won’t have heard of him. He wasn’t an eloquent speaker. He didn’t seek the spotlight. In fact, I got the sense that he quite liked to stay away from it. He never appeared in a hurry – remarkable for the average American, let alone a member of Congress. We met on a dozen or so occasions and he recognized me, but never knew my name. He didn’t try to fudge it; he reintroduced himself sincerely and thanked me. At least once I witnessed him repeatedly move to the back of the speaking line so that his busy colleagues could speak-and-run.

Donald Payne put in the time. He waited. He listened. He read. He traveled. He waited some more. He spoke to everyone and anyone about the plight of people in Sudan.

In 2007, my organization was trying to encourage governors to sign off on state legislation to divest public pension funds of certain companies doing business in Sudan. We convinced a number of members of Congress to write a letter to all the governors and then hold a press conference.

In my haste, I made a big mistake: I didn’t get any press to the press conference! The only people at the press conference were high school students doing a class project on Sudan. Two of the other members of Congress bailed and another was (rightfully) furious. Representative Payne neither bailed nor was he furious. He did not abbreviate his remarks. After he spoke, he spent more than 30 minutes talking about Sudan with the high school students from northern Virginia (remember, he represented New Jersey).

I remain deeply impressed by this man’s grace, but I’m also torn about whether or not I would have done the same. After all, there are a lot of important things to do and talking to 9th graders about Sudan doesn’t seem like the best use of time (…even if your goal is to ease suffering there). But, I don’t think Congressman Payne thought that way. In these 9th graders, I think he saw people who might come to share his passion. He saw an opportunity, not a burden.

At the beginning of 2005 I was part of a group of college students who were outraged that the US government was not doing more to stop genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan. We thought a big lobby day would attract students from across the country to come to DC and inspire action from the nation’s leaders. None of us were particularly knowledgeable about how to actually pull off such an event. We talked to more than a dozen congressional offices from both parties. They were universally nice, but none paid much attention (with the exception of Senator Brownback). Congressman Payne and his staff embraced us and our idea for a lobby day. They helped us pull together all the details and recruit other legislators to speak. They coached us through each step along the way.

Recall Ezra’s description I cited earlier: “lobbyists act like a volunteer, and highly skilled, army for politicians.” In this case, it was reversed! The politician was helping the amateur lobbyists. Scruffy, inexperienced college students walked into his office and he saw opportunity. Maybe helping us wasn’t the best use of time for a small, overworked staff, but the experience hooked me. After that event, I determined I wanted to do this work full-time. I spent the next six years of my life working on Sudan.

During my time at Genocide Intervention Network (now United to End Genocide), I came to believe that in order to “win” on our issues – preventing and stopping large-scale, deliberate violence against civilians – part of what we had to do was get sympathetic members of Congress to do more. We had to make it in their political interest to go beyond “I condemn X happening in Y place” resolutions.

The organization devoted a ton of time and money to teaching activists how to recruit prominent local supporters and use the local press. We were willing to criticize members for not doing enough. We graded them on their efforts - from A to F - and published the scorecard for all their constituents to see.

The strategy worked well in some instances. I’m inclined to write, “but all those members who were persuaded to be marginally more engaged were not half as important as Congressman Payne.” I don’t think that’s the right way to put it though. I think its more accurate to say that without Representative Payne there might not have been a productive outlet for the marginally increased energies of the other members. He was the rudder and the sails and the captain. They were the wind.

I was once at an all-day event on Sudan with Congressman Payne. It was in his district. President Obama’s Special Envoy Scott Gration was there as well. A local university had spent a lot of time and money putting on this conference. In all, maybe 3 dozen locals showed up at some point during the day. Point being – if he was out to win votes, this was not a way to spend his time. I highly doubt that his work on Sudan furthered his political interests at all.

Reflecting on Congressman Payne’s example makes me want to ask a second question. Not just, “how do we get members of Congress to co-sponsor this piece of potentially controversial legislation?” But also, “how do we get a Congressman to devote his career and decades of his life to our cause?”

I know professional advocates ask the first question… do they ask the second? Not in my experience. Maybe we’re too short-term oriented. Maybe its too much an art and we’re more comfortable with science. Maybe we discount the relative impact a single, deeply committed member of Congress can make. Maybe we believe it’s not within our power to create or instill that sort of commitment.

Did Congressman Payne’s passion and all that time translate into results for Sudanese? I believe it did. There are others who believe that the Congress, led by Congressman Payne, was too tough with the Government of Sudan and not tough enough with the various rebel groups (one of which is now the ruling party of the new Republic of South Sudan). They would say he was too willing to reach for a stick and not willing enough to extend a carrot.

There’s no doubt that he felt a palpable disgust for the Government of Sudan. On moral grounds, he himself refused to meet with the President and other high-level officials. But I don’t think this blinded him or prevented him from supporting US negotiations with the regime. At least three times that I can remember, his top public ask of the executive branch was the appointment of a Presidential Envoy to lead diplomacy. And he supported the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between Southern rebels and the Government of Sudan, even though one can argue that it entrenched the ruling party and certainly failed to address the horrible ongoing violence in Darfur.

I think the way to think about his more bellicose proposals – including, most notoriously, American bombing of Sudanese military installations – is that he did not always trust the State Department, which by and large determines US policy with respect to Sudan. More specifically, I don’t think he always trusted the rotating high-level officials who were brought in to find (speedy) diplomatic solutions. He was not alone. Many believe that diplomats adopt the perspective of the more sophisticated government interlocutors and downplay the claims of the disorganized and unsophisticated rebel groups. In their hurry to get a deal done within limited time windows – which is their job – diplomats can give too much or not get enough in return. Sometimes they are so captured by the process that they fail to see the bigger picture.

Boiled down to its essence, the story of Sudan’s major violent crises is about a rational and ruthless ruling clique clinging to power (and various groups – armed and otherwise – testing it and competing with each other). To keep power, the regime will do most anything. It deliberately uses force against civilians, but it will also compromise. It will expel its “spiritual leader” and it will sign an agreement with its hated enemy. But it will also arm murderous militias and deny myriad civil and human rights. Payne did not stand in the way of compromise with the regime when he believed it could alleviate suffering, but my view is that he also didn’t think that the compromises reflected anything more than the regime’s present cost-benefit calculations. That’s why he had to stay on the issue day after day, year after year, decade after decade. No one move – diplomatic agreement or punitive action – would be decisive. Remain ever vigilant. Don’t expect game-changers. It’s a long, nasty chess match.

When I first encountered Congressman Payne the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) had just ended the 20 year civil war between Southern rebels and the government in Khartoum. According to Hilde Johnson, a key Norwegian diplomat, both the Southern rebels and the international officials felt they could not include Darfur in the “comprehensive” negotiations for fear of sinking the very delicate talks. These are the really tough calls that international leaders face. In hindsight I don’t know that I would have made a different decision. However, its clear to me that the focus on the CPA negotiations and the exclusion of Darfur from the talks proved massively costly in terms of lives lost in Darfur. Khartoum saw that as long as the international focus was on ending the civil war, it could pursue a scorched earth policy in Darfur without international consequences. (What were the regime’s motivations? To send a message to people around the country – don’t expect to get the deal the Southern rebels will get. If you challenge us – as rebels in Darfur did – we will deal mercilessly with you and your families).

When officials make or go along with decisions that result in these sorts of huge human costs, even if they are the right decisions, I think they have a responsibility to subsequently address them as best they can. So many individuals who were part of the CPA process never turned their attention to Darfur. Congressman Payne did. Two months after the signing of the agreement he introduced a bill that sent a strong message to Khartoum and eventually led to US leadership at the UN on the issue of Darfur.

Through his persistent advocacy – the activist groups were just getting started and provided only marginal help – the Darfur Genocide Accountability Act gained almost 150 co-sponsors in the beginning of 2005. The Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, at the insistence of the State Department, prevented the bill from coming before the committee. That’s because the legislation included capital market sanctions – which would have forced most foreign publicly traded companies to decide between listing on the New York Stock Exchange and operating in Sudan – and authorized the President to use military force to stop the killing in Darfur. Keep in mind – Secretary of State Colin Powell had just been in Khartoum to shake hands with Sudan’s Vice President on a job well done (regarding the peace agreement). And less than two months later the Congress wants to send planes over Darfur and inspire a mass exit of international companies from Sudan! You can see how this proposal would have horrified many who had just devoted years of their lives to ending the civil war and didn’t want to see all that come undone. But Congressman Payne was trying to re-balance US policy. He wasn’t satisfied by past “victories.”

Remain ever vigilant. Don’t expect game-changers. It’s a long, nasty chess match.

Ultimately, he had to compromise with Chairman Hyde and the State Department. The authorization of force and the capital market sanctions were dropped, but it was agreed that the US would take a leading role on Darfur at the UN Security Council.

There’s a robust debate about why violence in Darfur declined. I believe part of the explanation is that the regime’s calculations changed. Now that the CPA was completed, the international community could really come to grips with addressing the crisis in Darfur. As Rebecca Hamilton writes, for better or worse the US led that effort. And, in my opinion, no one was more important in making sure it did than Congressman Payne. I believe his quick and forceful pivot at the beginning of 2005 changed the regime’s calculations and gradually eased the violence.

There are many other things to say - his whole-of-Sudan approach anticipated the challenges of 2010 and 2011 - but this post is already long.

Finally, I’ll just say what I probably said to him a dozen times in passing…

Thank you, Congressman. Thank you for the time.


  1. sam-a-bell posted this