Congressional Advocacy: Visiting Members of Congress
A face-to-face meeting with an elected representative, or a key staff person, is the best way to discuss issues of concern. Individuals or small delegations making personal visits provide legislators with solid, real life evidence of the importance of a particular issue to their constituencies. Moreover, rational discussions on pending legislation with Members can educate and ideally, influence their position.
Do not feel you are imposing: after all, Members meet with constituents daily. If you feel intimidated at first, remember that your elected representatives depend on you for your support and your votes, just as you depend on them.
Below are a few steps to help ensure a successful meeting:
Step 1: Arranging the Visit
Visits can usually be arranged through the scheduler(appointment secretary) in the Member's Washington, D.C. office. It is best to set up the meeting about two weeks in advance. Meetings are usually scheduled for about half an hour but you may just get 10 to 15 minutes and the Member, if participating, may not stay for the entire meeting.
Ask to meet with your Representative, stressing that you are a constituent by stating the city where you reside. If your Representative is not available, then ask to speak with the Legislative Director, who usually handles a range of issues. Find contact information for your Representative at www.senate.gov and at www.house.gov or call the U.S. Capitol switchboard at 202-224-3121.
Clarify the purpose for the visit:
Identify who will be attending, and the topics to be discussed. You will increase your chances of meeting face-to-face with your Representative by stating that you have a group of constituents who represent different experiences and backgrounds. This broadens your base and influence.
Depending on legislative developments, it may be necessary to meet with staff rather than the legislator. Since legislators rely heavily on their professional staff's opinion, this is also a very important meeting. Staff can provide you with access and, if they are sympathetic to your position, can become a trusted voice in the ear of the legislator. If your Member decides to adopt one of your causes, the staff will do much of the work. Ask to meet with the Legislative Director (LD) or Legislative Assistant (LA) who handles the particular issue you wish to discuss.
Confirm the time and place of your visit with the scheduler staff member by e-mail soon after arranging the appointment, and then again by phone the day before your meeting.
Step 2: Preparing for the Visit
Develop a succinct agenda. If you're going as a group, agree on your goal and message beforehand. Show a united front; divisiveness is both irritating and confusing. Agree on one facilitator/spokesperson in advance.
Do your homework. Find out what your Members care about and what arguments may persuade them by visiting their websites (available at www.house.gov or www.senate.gov), and sign up to get their e-mails. Know the extent of your Member's district, committee assignments, number of terms served. Know their voting record, and/or position, on the issue(s). Have well-reasoned facts and figures ready about how the issue(s) are impacting your family, your community and your district, but do not be overwhelming. Be ready to answer questions and (when necessary) respond to counter-arguments. To learn more about particular bills, the lawmaking process and what legislative actions are required, visit http://thomas.loc.gov. . . .
Gather local information to include in a "leave-behind" information packet for the legislator:fact sheets and stories supporting your issues, bundles of constituent letters, and any appropriate briefing materials.
Make sure to include your contact information in case staff would like to follow-up: For the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering, "leave-behind" packets will be prepared, including a specific request for action (two to three paragraphs articulating the legislative action requested, and why that action should be taken), you should also plan to insert additional information suggested above on how the issue affects you and your district.
Step 3: During the Visit
(Arrive on time, even a little early) Be positive and friendly. Know your agenda and stick to your message. Do not assume the Member is familiar with the details of the issue/bill. Take notes during the visit on the Member's or staffer's position on the issue, and any arguments or questions they raise in order to provide a written summary. Be sure to get the names or cards of staff members assigned to work in this area.
Make your presentation simple and straightforward since you may have only 5 to 10 minutes left by the time you get through with introductions and pleasantries. When visiting your Member, prepare two sets of remarks, one that is 15 minutes long and the other that is 90 seconds long. In this way you will be prepared if the legislator is called out of the office in the middle of your visit.
Limit the number of issues you want to cover. Do not overwhelm. Remember, going "off-message" dilutes your primary advocacy for the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering and gives short shrift to the new message you bring up. Neither message is well served by this. Instead, save discussion of other topics and use them to nurture your relationship with your Members' offices by contacting them at a later date.
Because you asked for the visit, Members will expect you to start the discussion. The following is one suggested format for the discussion:
I. Create an Open Climate
Begin the visit by introducing yourselves, stating whom you represent, and thanking the legislator for meeting with you as well as for some favorable position they have already taken (if one exists).
II. Present your Message
a. OPEN the discussion by framing the issue on your terms;
b. EXPLORE the issue by taking a position and identifying relevant legislation;
c. SUPPORT your position by explaining why such a measure is good public policy;
d. APPLY the policy to real lives by making clear how the legislation affects people in the Member's district. Anecdotal evidence of how you will be personally affected can also be very moving. A few memorable statistics can further reinforce your point. When possible, show that the issue affects a broad cross-section of the community. Also, be sure to cite any significant support within the district.
III. Make a Specific Request for Legislative Action
Let them know what action you are requesting. A specific request for legislative action will allow you to control the meeting. You have now set the agenda. If attempts are made to divert discussion, simply and politely return to your issue. Finally, if the Member seems supportive, seek a commitment. If the legislator remains opposed, ask her or him to keep an open mind and remain neutral.
Be responsive to your legislator's questions. If you do not know the answer to a question, do not fake it or bluff. Say, "I don't know, but I'll get back to you on it." Then DO IT or ask one of the Washington-based Catholic organizations to follow up.
Don't overstay your welcome. Conclude the visit by again extending the appropriate thank you. Reaffirm your intention to forward any information or materials which were requested by the Member or staff.
Step 4: Following the Visit
If possible, debrief as a group immediately after the meeting. Personal visits always increase a Member's awareness of an issue. However, the effectiveness of such a visit increases markedly when accompanied by follow-up actions.
Send a thank-you note or e-mail that reinforces your message and the local impact, restates an understanding of the legislator's position, highlights the main points of the visit, and concludes with a personal story which surfaced during the conversation. It should also provide the Member with any additional materials or information she/he may have requested.
Offer to be an ongoing resource for the office. Congressional offices need access to local information and stories from trusted sources, many times with very short notice. Being that resource is a fantastic way to develop a closer relationship.
Send a copy to others who accompanied you on the visit. If the visit was held with a staff member address the letter to the legislator with a copy (cc) to the staff member.
Do not forget to build a relationship with your elected officials at home by visiting their district offices.