Budget generates more of a buzz among advocacy groups than citizens

With President Obama's $3.6 trillion budget hitting the House and Senate floors this week, groups for and against the spending plan have issued strong appeals for citizens to pick up their phones and let their voices be heard on Capitol Hill.

But, even in the offices of targeted Democrats whose budget votes may be up for grabs, the phones are not ringing off the hook.

"It's kind of like crickets chirping," said one Democratic leadership aide, who last week asked members, including Blue Dogs with targets on their backs, about the grassroots response to the budget plan.

Despite urgent pleas by interest groups over cable TV, radio, and the Web, congressional switchboard operators have not seen any noticeable spike in calls, according to the office of the Senate sergeant-at-arms. Over the past few days, the switchboard has handled about the same number of calls it typically experiences on a normal legislative day.

Aides to moderate Senate and House Democrats being targeted by ads and e-mail campaigns said their offices have fielded a relatively light volume of telephone calls, especially in comparison to the crushing response to debate on the economic stimulus package earlier this year.

The office of one Democratic senator targeted by several pro-budget media campaigns reported about 2,600 calls last week about the budget, a mere fraction of the amount of feedback generated by the stimulus debate.

Several offices observed that calls in support of the budget peaked in the middle of last week but tapered off to a trickle by Friday after the budget cleared key committees on party-line votes.

Hoping to reproduce the grassroots buzz that defined Obama's presidential campaign, the Democratic National Committee's Organizing for Change initiative, the progressive group MoveOn.org, and Americans United for Change launched media blitzes last week in support of the White House's ambitious spending plan.

A "significant six-figure buy" by Americans United for Change used cable and broadcast television ads in target markets to put the heat on members in 12 states, including Virginia, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire. MoveOn.org launched radio ads targeting Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., Mark Warner, D-Va., and Evan Bayh, D-Ind., as well as seven House members.

Jeremy Funk, spokesman for Americans United for Change, called reports of normal call volume "surprising" because aggregate call logs from all of the coalition's member groups show Democrats have made more than 50,000 calls to Congress.

The coalition's efforts to rally support for Obama's healthcare and energy plans will continue through the spring recess, with members hosting town hall meetings and rallies around the country, Funk added. Another TV ad in advance of possible conference negotiations is in the works, he said.

While television ads from Democratic groups have been beamed into many Americans' living rooms, fiercely worded opposition to Obama's budget has streamed into their e-mail inboxes. Citizens Against Government Waste, Club for Growth, and Americans for Tax Reform are among the fiscally conservative groups taking the fight against the budget online in the form of "action alerts" to group members.

After public passions were aroused over Obama's massive stimulus proposal and outrage over AIG bonus payments prompted late-night comedians to invoke images of torch-wielding peasants storming the Capitol, a new outpouring of grassroots energy around the budget proposal seemed likely. But the pitchforks appear to have been returned to the tool shed, for now.

Both budget supporters and opponents observed that the arcane legislative process makes the pending House and Senate resolutions unlikely lightning rods for public passion. Despite the eye-popping numbers associated with the budget, its nonbinding blueprint for federal spending does not carry the same clear-cut consequences as a spending or tax bill.

" 'Reconciliation' doesn't really lend itself to grassroots [action]," said Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste.

Anger is brewing about wasteful government spending among fiscal hawks, Schatz added, but grassroots activities -- including the anti-tax "tea parties" being thrown by regular citizens in localities nationwide -- are likely to accelerate in advance of Tax Day on April 15, long after this week's scheduled budget votes.

Fatigue over spending battles also may be a factor in the tepid response so far. Lobbyists and activists agreed that the stimulus, omnibus fiscal 2009 spending bill, and financial bailout measures may be bleeding together in the minds of regular Americans.

"People are just being bombarded with so many bad pieces of legislation," said Andy Roth, of the anti-spending group Club for Growth. The tangle of recent spending issues makes it hard to "zero in on the budget" as a single grassroots cause, he said.

For some lawmakers, the threat of being attacked from the left may actually be a blessing in disguise. "If you're a Democrat in a moderate to conservative district, having a liberal group go after you isn't exactly the worst thing," said the Democratic leadership aide.

And for new members who rocketed to victory in states that leaned heavily in Obama's favor, ads that echo both candidates' messages have left some Democrats scratching their heads, but smiling.

"Senator Shaheen has said from the start that she shares the president's budget priorities -- to reform our healthcare system, develop a sustainable green economy, expand access to education, and develop a path toward a balanced budget at the same time," said Alex Reese, spokesman for the New Hampshire senator, one of MoveOn.org's targets. "Running ads to persuade her to support those issues makes about as much sense as trying to persuade a bear to eat honey."

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