Meetings With Legislators
Face-to-face meetings with your elected officials and their key staff are an extremely effective way to get to know them and to directly express your views on issues. Legislators are eager to meet with constituents, whether they are in the capitol, or their state or district. Here are some tips for setting up a meeting with your elected representative in Congress or a state legislator.
The reality of busy schedules: It’s important to keep in mind that an elected official is incredibly busy. It is not uncommon, for example, for him or her to have six hours of committee work, eight hours of floor debate, and ten to twelve appointments all in the same day. They must also take time to discuss issues with their staff, take phone calls, and do some reading and thinking.
As a result of this hectic schedule, elected officials are forced to develop the technique of arriving late for appointments and leaving early. They move from commitment to commitment, depending on what’s urgent, what’s important, and what’s interesting.
When to schedule a meeting: Beyond “get acquainted” meetings and relationship-building contacts, visits with legislators should be timed for maximum effect. Meetings should be tied to specific legislative goals; i.e., timed to influence a legislator’s vote when a bill is at a crucial juncture in the legislative process, such as a floor vote or committee hearing. Visits should also be scheduled with specific legislator targets in mind – those whose votes or leadership can impact a bill’s progress at crucial junctures in the process. Professional lobbyists who monitor the status of legislation notify grassroots advocates about effective times and targets for their lobbying efforts.
Contact the legislator’s office. Legislators’ schedules tend to fill up quickly. If you want to meet with a national legislator in Washington D.C., contact their office on Capitol Hill. If you don’t have their direct dial, call the Capitol switchboard at 202-224-3121 and ask for your representative’s office. If you prefer to meet with the legislator in his/her state or district, then contact the lawmaker’s local office, which will be on their website, accessible at congress.gov.
Don’t just “drop by” expecting a meeting. (In Washington, anyway). While offices will try to accommodate constituents, you may end up pulling the legislator out of a committee hearing or interrupting another meeting. The staff will remember you, but not favorably.
Schedule a group meeting. Taking a few of your colleagues or volunteers with you when you visit your legislator demonstrates that other constituents share your concern about an issue. Numbers do count when trying to persuade a legislator of the importance of your views. In group meetings, coordinate in advance who will speak to specific points.
Obtain legislator’s contact information. Ask for the address or fax number where your written request for a meeting should be sent, and to who’s attention it should be sent. This will most likely be the legislator’s scheduler.
Send a written request for a meeting. Depending on your timeframe you may be asked to submit a written request - via e-mail or fax - for an appointment to your legislator’s office. Identify yourself as a constituent, list the other advocates or organizations that will be present at the meeting, and briefly explain what you would like to discuss with the legislator.
Follow up on your written request. Follow up on your faxed request the following day, and for mailed requests a week later, by calling and asking to speak with the scheduler. Tell the scheduler who you are, where you are from, and the organizations with which you are affiliated. Inform the staffer that you are calling to follow up on a written request for a meeting with the legislator for yourself and a number of other local citizens concerned with your cause.
The Fallback Meeting. If, after your attempts, the scheduler states that the legislator will be unable to meet with you, request that the senior legislative aide on health policy in the office meet with your group.
Call to confirm the appointment. The day prior to your scheduled appointment, call to confirm the appointment, and reaffirm that the legislator will still be unavailable to meet with you or to drop by the meeting.
Be prepared. You will typically have 15-20 minutes to state your case and your meeting may often be interrupted. It is crucial that you are well prepared to express your views succinctly and clearly.
Dress professionally. Don’t let appearances detract from your message or impair your credibility.
Take materials with you. Given limited time for your meeting, it is helpful to have brief fact sheets or other material that you can leave behind with the legislator and staff. Attach your business card to any written material you leave with the legislator’s office.
Be on time. Legislators are extremely busy and may be forced to skip your meeting if you are running late. If you know you are going to be late, call ahead to inform the legislator’s office. They will try their best to accommodate you if you give them a little warning.
Be ready to meet with staff. Don’t be disappointed if you meet with staff instead of your legislator; this may happen due to last minute changes. Key staff aides are often more familiar with specific policy issues than their busy bosses, and are in the best position to listen to your point of view and subsequently advise the legislator of your concerns at precisely the right moment. Meeting with key staff is just as important as meeting personally with legislators.
Kick-Off. Meetings with legislators and staff usually begin with small talk. This puts everyone at ease. However, you need to send a signal that you have something specific to say, and not let the small talk consume too much of your limited time.
Identify yourself as a constituent. Mention the state, district, and city or county where you vote.
Start with a compliment. If possible, thank legislators for their support on a prior issue or for their participation in a community event. At a minimum, thank them for meeting with you.
Identify yourself within the community. Inform your legislator if you are affiliated with a local group and whether you work with the legislator’s constituents. Your message will have more weight if the legislator knows that you are involved as a community leader.
Describe the FARE mission and good works (e.g., fundraising efforts, research grants, and education programs).
- Relate some of the statistics about food allergies; specific statistics are most helpful (i.e., how many people are affected in the state and U.S.).
- Discuss, generally, some of the issues that concern FARE and patients with whom you work and provide copies of FARE’s position papers.
- Share anecdotal, personal stories about patients – they resonate with lawmakers.
Take the initiative. State briefly, clearly and concisely what issue you want to discuss, what your position is on it and what action you want the legislator to take. Be as specific as possible. When discussing a piece of legislation, identify it by bill number, subject matter, title and/or legislative author. Follow this with facts and personal anecdotes about why the legislator should take your position.
Focus on one or two issues. Since time is limited, don’t try to cover too many issues in one meeting, even though they may be important to you. Focus on a couple of key issues; you can always leave behind fact sheets on other topics.
Be informative, be thorough, but be concise. Again, you won’t have much time to present your case, so don’t try to chronicle the history of a complex issue in ten minutes. If the issue is complicated, say so, and leave behind or offer to provide materials that explain the problem more completely.
Tell personal stories. Personalize the issue – explain how it affects real people! It is not always clear to legislators how their votes on bills affect their constituents. If you illustrate how individuals are personally affected, the legislator may realize the impact the bill in question could have on their constituents.
Don’t argue over policy issues. Present your case in a straightforward and forceful manner. If the legislator disagrees with your position, agree to disagree for the moment and move on to your next topic. You can always follow up with a letter explaining your views in further detail.
Mention other supporters. Judiciously inform the legislator about your other organizations, important individuals, government officials and legislators who support your position. If you are working with a coalition, mention other coalition members. This will demonstrate broad-based support for your cause.
Be a good listener. After you deliver your message, allow the legislator to respond. However, bring the conversation back to the issue at hand if the legislator goes off on a tangent or tries to evade it. Answer any questions to the best of your ability, but if you don’t know the answer, admit it. Provide the information promptly in a follow-up letter.
Have a clear “ask.” Ask legislators to take a specific action. Press politely for a commitment, unless they are obviously opposed to your position or to making a commitment.
Volunteer to be a resource contact. Legislators and their staff will always welcome a constituent who is knowledgeable on specific issues and is willing to be a local contact who can give them advice on short notice. For example, legislators often set up health care advisory panels consisting of local health care providers, health care consumers, and others, to provide them with a local view on major health policy initiatives. By volunteering to serve on these panels you will be in a good position to provide input.
Invite the legislator to visit your organization. Legislators will welcome the opportunity to participate in community events, especially where they can visit with their constituents. Make sure they know that the media has also been notified – then make sure the media know the representative has been invited.
Always follow up with a thank you. When you return home, send the legislator a brief thank you note for meeting with you. Briefly restate your concern and requested action. If you met with staff, send them a thank you note as well and send a separate letter to the legislator informing them of the meeting you had with their staff, the issues you discussed and your views on them. Reference the issues you covered, as well as any follow up that was discussed.
Create a lobby report form. Write a brief summary of your meeting for your FARE colleagues and keep track of everyone you meet with. This enhances your ability to monitor legislators’ positions on your cause and to follow up on your important work.
The credibility and trust that must be built between professional and citizen lobbyists and legislators must also be developed between advocates and staff. Since elected officials spend much of their time outside the office, they depend a great deal on their staff for judgment, guidance and assistance. It is impossible for any legislator to be fully informed, on an up-to-the-minute basis, on all the issues pending in the legislature, all events in the state or district, foreign affairs occurrences, regulatory issues and court cases. Staff are legislators’ first line of defense – they decipher events and determine what should be done. Staff therefore gradually develop a measure of expertise over many issues, the players and politics of committees, the legislative process, and the interest groups and constituencies involved with legislation. They have been called the invisible force in American lawmaking.
LEGISLATIVE STAFF ROLES
- Personal staff: Personal staff includes staff in district and capitol offices. They handle constituent needs, draft legislation, handle correspondence, work with the media, coordinate scheduling, etc.
- Committee Staff: Each committee has its own staff. Staff members draft legislation, investigate issues of importance to the committee chairperson, organize hearings, and develop policy.
MEETING WITH STAFF
- Remember who the staff aides are; they are key figures. Don’t underestimate their influence.
- Get acquainted and create regular contact.
- Meeting with staff can be advantageous. You can ask the aide what their boss thinks about an issue, and you may get a more direct response than you would from the legislator. Be sure to ask.
- Don’t overestimate what they know. You can ask staff about their involvement in health care issues, and personally offer to serve as an information resource for them.
- Provide accurate, complete information to maintain your credibility. It should also be summarized; concise and to-the-point items are most useful. The staff can always request more information at a later date.
- Listen carefully. In politics, language is pregnant with shades of meaning. Pay careful attention to what a legislator and/or staff member says to you. It is critical to distinguish between general statements of support, and verbal commitments to vote your way.
- Tell the staffer, “If the legislator comes in, I’d like to say hello.”
- It is appropriate to ask staff for their advice and opinions. However, don’t attack their ideas. Be prepared to offer an alternative idea or proposal.
- Follow-up with a thank you e-mail, as you would with a legislator.