Your members of Congress owe their seat in Congress to votes from your district and state. Money matters far more than it should in American politics, and it may often seem that members don’t listen. But members of Congress
pay attention to their constituents, and
can have an impact. Congressional offices count the letters they receive ON various issues, and
your action to send letter can have a direct effect on votes and actions
Most foreign policy issues aren’t front and center for members of Congress. On a back-burner issue, even a small number of letters can make a BIG difference.
If you belong to a non-governmental, religious, grassroots or community organization, you can build a personal connection between your organization and your congressional offices on a set of issues that can significantly advance your cause.
Making effective phone calls to the Washington office of your members of Congress
- Ask to speak with the staff person responsible for the issue. On foreign policy issues, this will often be the foreign policy aide.
If you know the appropriate staff person’s name who deals with your issue, so much the better.
Give your name and tell the receptionist that you are a constituent (you will be more likely to get through to the aide).
- Introduce yourself very briefly to the staffer, explaining that you are a constituent and, if you belong to a local organization concerned about this issue, add that connection.
- Be specific about what you want the member to do. Don’t just complain about an issue; say you want the member to vote for or sponsor a specific bill or amendment, or take a particular action, like sign a congressional “dear colleague” letter.
- Ask what the member’s position is on the issue. If the staff person doesn’t know or won’t say what the member’s position is, ask what they, the staff person, will be recommending to the member.
Ask them to learn what the member’s position is on the issue, and to get back to you with that information.
Thank them for their time.
- Recognize that congressional staffers are often very pressed for time. Make your message
short and direct
Be prepared to get voicemail.
Prepare a brief one or two sentence summary of what you want to leave on voicemail. Do give your name and contact information. You may want to ask them to call you back. If it’s right before a vote, leaving your “plug” for the vote without asking for a call back may be sufficient.
Scheduling a meeting with your congressional office in D.C. or in your district
1. To make a meeting with your member of Congress or one of their staff, follow the same directions as above; but rather than telling them what you would like them to do over the phone, simply tell them which issue you would like to discuss in person, and ask them when they and/or the member would be available for a meeting to discuss your issue.
2. A very effective tactic is to organize a group meeting of constituents who can speak from a variety of backgrounds (academic, religious, business…) and ask for a meeting with the member himself/herself.
3. In order to schedule a meeting with the member, it is likely that you will be asked to fax a formal meeting request letter to the member’s scheduler. This is normal procedure.
Tips on congressional visits
Introduce yourself and your local community links
(groups associated with, member of a board, etc). Say what you want to talk about, which issue and piece of legislation.
Find something to thank them for.
If they’ve voted right in the past, make sure to mention that (it is a good idea to know your member’s voting record on the issue before you go into the meeting).
Get the member or aide to talk.
Ask what the member’s position is on the legislation and why. Do they support specific amendments? How will they vote? This will give you a framework to shape your dialogue and address their issues.
4. Often you might be talking about an amendment that the member doesn’t know well.
Be prepared to explain the amendment
briefly and ask if she/he wants more information.
Ask for something more and something specific
. Open with a specific request. If the member is already on your side, ask for something more. If the member is good on the issue, show her/him a list of needed representatives or senators. Ask which ones she/he knows well enough to ask to support getting favorable action on the amendment.
Stay on message.
Don’t be put off by smokescreens or long-winded answers. Bring her/him back to the point. Keep control of the visit.
Speak from your experience.
If you are meeting with your member’s office on Cuba and have traveled to Cuba or have heard a Cuban speak, share your story. You do not need to be an expert. Bring as many facts about which you feel comfortable to the table, but give stories from your experiences if possible. Don’t stray from the real facts, however!
Present supporting documents
, such as relevant local editorials, denominational church statements, etc. Underline or highlight the most relevant portions of the document and reference the information as you hand it to the aide or member.
Close the deal.
Get a commitment on your specific request. If you got a “yes,” then you are done. If not, ask what the member would need in order to do what you want. Then follow up on those concerns.
Continue to build the relationship.
Relationships go through ups and downs, but they continue. Send a thank-you note. Keep in contact with the staffer as you receive new information or as votes approach. After the vote, give your member feedback-either thank her/him, or express your concerns if she/he voted against the amendment you were supporting.
- Do learn members’ committee assignments and where their specialties lie.
- Do identify the aide(s) that handle the issues and build a relationship with them.
- Do present the need for what you’re asking the member to do. Use reliable information.
- Do relate situations in their home state or district to legislation.
- Do, in the case of voting records, ask why the member voted the way she/he did.
- Do show openness to knowledge of the counterarguments.
- Do admit what you don’t know. Offer to find out and send information back to the office.
- Do spend time even when the member has a position against yours. You can lessen the intensity of her/his opposition, or you might even change her/his position.
- Don’t overload a congressional lobby visit with too many issues. One visit for one or two topics.
- Don’t confront, threaten, pressure, beg or speak with a moralistic tone.
- Don’t be argumentative; speak with calmness and commitment so as not to put the staff or member on the defensive.
- Don’t use easy ideological arguments.
- Don’t overstate the case. Members and staff are very busy.
- Don’t expect members to be specialists; their schedule and workload make them generalists.
- Don’t make promises you can’t keep.
- Don’t leave the visit without leaving a position or fact sheet in the office.