January 27, 2015
Last month’s election brought scores of new faces to Capitol Hill, meaning that associations and advocacy groups will be working hard to introduce themselves and make their case to incoming lawmakers and staff.
In a timely bit of reporting, the Congressional Management Foundation released a study recently that draws on interviews with roughly 450 congressional staffers explaining how to best handle these meetings.
That means they have data — not just opinions and suggestions — on how members of Congress and their staff want to be contacted and what procedures are likely to result in influential face time.
As the report put it, “getting on their calendars and influencing the policy decision-making process requires preparation and a little finesse on the part of advocates.”
Congress Wants to Meet You
Lawmakers work as many as 70 hours a week when Congress is in session and take up to 13 meetings a day, the research shows. “They are bombarded from all sides with data and opinions, many of them unsolicited,” the report said.
But in-person meetings with constituents carry the most weight when it comes to influencing policy decisions. In fact, in a separate Congressional Management Foundation study, fully 95 percent of House members said that staying in touch with constituents was critical to their effectiveness.
“Whether someone is a member of an association, an employee of a business, a supporter of a nonprofit or interest group, or just a constituent with something to say, Senators and Representatives want to hear from their constituents,” the report said.
The Importance of Constituents
When contacting a congressional office, the report recommends some basics: know the congressional schedule, be flexible about time and place and make the request far in advance. More than half of the staffers surveyed said that three to four weeks of lead time was best. More than a third needed at least two weeks of notice.
Understanding the schedule is important because you’ll need to know whether the lawmaker is in Washington or the district, and many lawmakers have separate schedulers for each. Interestingly, the research shows that more than 70 percent of lawmakers indicated no preference as to where meetings take place.
What they do care about is meeting with constituents.
Almost two thirds of the chiefs of staff surveyed said that the request for a meeting should come from a constituent — and that the constituent should be present at the meeting when it takes place.
“One of the biggest pet peeves expressed by House Schedulers was a constituent ‘bait and switch,’ when a constituent is promised but does not materialize when the meeting occurs,” the report said. “Groups’ reputations with Members have been ruined through this sort of duplicity.”
Focus on Your Issue
Meetings with a lawmaker are likely to be brief — say, 15 minutes — and often take place in cramped congressional offices. Interruptions are common.
Bring a small group, including one or more constituents, and stay focused on the topic you came to discuss. Have a clear goal for the meeting and what you want the lawmaker to do.
“It can be tempting for attendees … to raise issues other than the one they came for,” the report said. “However, they need to focus on the issue at hand. The limited time allotted should be used to accomplish the goals for the meeting by making a clear, focused, and persuasive case and asking the legislator to do the thing they feel is most important to
advance the issue.”
The report suggests leaving politics out of the meeting.
“Winning a Representative over depends on effective communication, engaging dialogue, and persuasive arguments,” it said. “A meeting in a legislator’s office is not the time or place to bring up elections or campaign contributions.”
It also suggests that advocates show some flexibility, and be ready to meet with a staffer if scheduling gets tricky. If that happens, you can conduct the meeting exactly as you would have with the lawmaker. If the lawmaker walks in, simply include them. There’s no need to start over.
As one House scheduler told the Congressional Management Foundation, “a meeting with staff can be VERY beneficial.”
Building a Relationship
Of course, advocacy doesn’t end at the exit door. Roughly 94 percent of those surveyed said that leaving a one- or two-page issue brief is helpful, and 86 percent said that an email with attachments is helpful.
“Many people leave reports, marketing folders and longer issue briefs behind, but these are not likely to be read,” the report said. “Keep it simple and short, and it will be useful.”
Send thank-you emails after the meeting and, if the lawmaker asked for more information, be sure to provide it. You don’t want to become what’s known as a “pen pal,” or an advocacy oversharer. But a meeting can be a springboard to a deeper relationship with the lawmaker and his or her office, if handled correctly. The report describes one such scenario:
“If attendees show up, from time to time, at town hall meetings and other public events the legislator is hosting or attending, they start to build a relationship with the office. If meeting attendees are seen visibly engaged in advocacy and public policy in the district or state — especially in a constructive, non-confrontational way — legislators and their staff view those individuals as more trustworthy advocates for their issues.
“If attendees are in a position to plan an event or site visit for the Member, even better. The Member can see, first-hand, what the group is advocating for and, if other constituents are involved, both the issue and the Member receive broader attention.”
It’s a great deal of work, and it can at times be frustrating. But as the report says, “meetings still trump any other interaction between legislators and their constituents.”