Washington Partners: How Relationships Shape Policy

Volume 28, No. 2 - Winter 2016
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“Hello, I finally got back a draft of the Land-Grant Parity bill with the change that we talked about at our last meeting,” reads a March email from Senate Indian Affairs Committee staff to the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) and a group called Washington Partners, LLC. “Feel free to take a look over what they came up with, and let me know if you see any other areas that could use some tweaks.”

Exchanges such as this one are not commonplace on Capitol Hill, where each congressional office serves a large constituency with an even larger range of policy agendas and opinions. Positioning an organization to be seen as trusted and expert on an issue requires careful relationship-building, patience, and an abundance of time. Such an effort often requires help, and so AIHEC and Washington Partners are working together to further AIHEC’s goals.

Washington Partners is a government affairs and public relations consulting firm focused on all aspects of education and policies affecting children and youth—from birth through higher education. Washington Partners works with clients, most of whom are small non-profits like AIHEC, to provide expertise and support for influencing the federal government on both legislative and regulatory matters.

Together with Washington Partners, AIHEC has positioned itself as a trusted resource for members of Congress and their staffs on federal policy issues affecting tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) at a time when making inroads with Congress is particularly challenging.


Simply put, advocacy is organized action in support of an idea or cause. More specifically to AIHEC’s work, advocacy is constituents educating elected officials on important issues, and establishing ongoing and trusting relationships. Each year, AIHEC hosts representatives from the tribal colleges in Washington, DC to appeal to lawmakers about pressing issues affecting their schools. AIHEC’s annual winter meeting is a perfect example of advocacy hitting on all three advocacy goals: advancing TCUs through policy improvements, educating members of Congress, and creating lasting relationships.

In advance of the winter meeting, AIHEC and Washington Partners work together to create policy “asks,” or action items to be brought before U.S. Senators and House Representatives. Before sending TCU delegations of over 150 people off to Capitol Hill, AIHEC and Washington Partners offer them training during a day-long preparatory session on how to effectively convey the policy requests to members of Congress and their staffs. Many senators and representatives are well acquainted with TCUs and their mission, but for others it is necessary to start at the beginning with a basic TCU overview.


Before taking it to the Hill, AIHEC and Washington Partners offer tribal college leaders and students training during a day-long preparatory session on how to effectively convey policy requests to members of Congress and their staffs.

Tribal college students bring a unique perspective into meetings on Capitol Hill, and their stories bring life to the policy points they aim to get across. Members of Congress have been moved by students who share their devotion to their communities and tribes, their perseverance in the face of adversity, and their strength. Whether it is the rice harvester from northern Minnesota who gathers enough to provide 300 free meals to her community, the student who studies online technology to build websites to expand the sales of tribal artwork, or the student who went to college alongside her children after being inspired by their success, these kinds of stories grab the heartstrings and command the attention of senators, representatives, and staff members. They ensure that policy “asks” are heard and they build the kind of relationships that make those winter meeting visits unforgettable.


Many people have a negative view of lobbyists in Washington, and it is true that some advocacy firms engage in unethical practices that have stigmatized the profession. Washington Partners, however, is committed to a mission statement that seeks to provide expertise and support in all aspects of influencing the federal government, primarily through lobbying and advocacy. That mission guides the firm’s work and determines its clients, most of whom are non-profits like AIHEC.

The “Partners” in Washington Partners is not just a clever name for a DC-based firm. The firm’s guiding principle is to partner with clients such as AIHEC to help them leverage their knowledge and resources into effective advocacy efforts. The principals and staff at Washington Partners are experts at facilitating the internal conversations among organizational leaders that are required for reaching consensus on policy matters and strategic initiatives. The firm also fosters partnerships between AIHEC and members of Congress and their staffs, key administration officials at numerous agencies, and other important stakeholders in the federal policy arena.

The staff at Washington Partners has worked on both sides of the aisle in key positions on the committees in the House and Senate charged with developing education policy. In addition, the team has experience working with executive branch agencies, including the Department of Education, the Department of Health and Human Services, the National Science Foundation, and many others. Experience in effectively navigating the corridors of Congress and federal relationships, along with the firm’s commitment to education and the guiding principles of partnership, brought AIHEC and Washington Partners together. Joining forces three years ago, the two groups bring each other complementary connections, knowledge of the nuances of specific legislation, and general insights that can be leveraged to advance AIHEC’s policy agenda. AIHEC also takes advantage of the additional manpower Washington Partners can provide, especially during National Tribal College Week, AIHEC’s largest annual advocacy event.


One of the key goals of advocacy is to educate members of Congress on a particular issue or policy. AIHEC and Washington Partners work together to refine that goal into a coherent series of “asks,” which tribal colleges can present to their respective congressional delegations.


For TCUs that are skeptical of building relationships with members of Congress because they fall on opposing sides of policy issues, Washington Partners reminds folks that in Washington, DC, as former president Lyndon Baines Johnson said, “The time to make friends is before you need them.” It is hard to predict what the future holds with Congress, but it is an absolute certainty that nothing will come from relationships that do not exist. Careful relationship-building has resulted in AIHEC establishing itself as a trusted name in policy affecting American Indians.

The past decade has been wrought with partisan politics. Compromise has dwindled, particularly in the House of Representatives, but also in the Senate. National crises that used to bring Congress together have further polarized both bodies recently. Large and public divides persist about how to handle the opioid crisis and the Zika virus, and when it comes to gun violence, Republicans and Democrats cannot even agree on what the problem is, let alone seek a solution.

Nevertheless, opportunities to compromise and seek consensus can still arise from time to time, as evidenced by the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in December 2015. That bill, which is now the new public K-12 education law, was created through bipartisan, bicameral compromise. Washington Partners was able to leverage its congressional relationships to advocate for specific policies in ESSA that affect TCUs in direct and indirect ways. AIHEC activated additional, complementary contacts to reinforce their “asks,” many of which were included in the final draft of the new law.

The philosophy that guided this work focused on consensus and partnership. No matter how partisan Capitol Hill becomes, when consensus is the driving force policy moves forward in Congress and is successfully implemented through the president’s administration and federal agencies. While ESSA took years and years of relationship-building, advocacy, and negotiations, along with the perfect alignment of personalities and a desire to get the bill done, the groundwork laid by advocacy groups resulted in many policy victories for education clients.

Similarly, AIHEC and Washington Partners have been systematically laying the groundwork for future legislative priorities in the areas of appropriations, higher education, the Farm Bill, and various additional policies critical to TCUs and the communities they serve, such as enhancements to Tribal Head Start. The two groups are currently gearing up for the next major education reauthorization bill—the Higher Education Act.

As the nation prepares to usher in a new Congress and presidential administration, AIHEC and Washington Partners will continue to work together to strengthen existing relationships, build new ones, and seek opportunities to advance TCUs in Washington, DC.

 Kuna Tavalin is a senior legislative associate at Washington Partners, LLC.

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