- Strategies and Suggestions for Successful Lobbying
- The Legislative Process
- Congressional Staff
- Visiting Capitol Hill
This brief guide will prepare you for a lobby visit with your member of Congress. Lobbying is not necessarily hard, nor time consuming, but it pays to know what to expect and to have a good plan. Although this manual discusses lobbying members of Congress, most of the material here could be used to lobby local and state elected officials as well.
Meeting with your Senator or Representative can be one of the most effective means of securing their commitment to protect the issues that are important to Humanists. Because public officials need votes to remain in office, it is in their interest to meet you and to try and accommodate your political needs whenever possible. Even legislators who generally vote against our issues can be convinced to change negative rhetoric, to avoid antagonistic positions and even to vote for us on occasion! Do not worry about being a novice. Every opportunity you take to discuss the Humanist agenda with your representatives increases their ability to understand our issues and to respond more appropriately. Your persistence as a concerned, credible, and well-organized constituent is your most powerful tool and one of AHA’s best assets.
Step One: Deciding When to Lobby
You can lobby a member of Congress back home or in the District of Columbia. If you are traveling to DC for business, family visits, or other reasons, please give the AHA a call. We can help plan your visit and may be able to send someone on staff with you. Please give us as much advance notice as possible. Almost any time you are in DC when Congress is in session is a good time to plan a lobby visit.
You can also arrange a meeting with your legislators back home. This is probably the best way to organize the visit, since you will be able to bring along several other constituents and you can learn more about your legislator’s schedule in the district and plan your follow-up accordingly. Learn where the members have district office and the names and phone numbers of their schedulers. (Schedulers are often in the DC office or they may travel frequently back and forth between DC and the district offices.) Congress often begins introducing legislation in the early spring; therefore, the Presidents’ Day Recess and Easter/Passover Holiday Recess are great times to plan a lobby visit. Call as early as possible to schedule a visit (more on that below). Other periods when members may be at home for an extended visit are the weeks of Memorial Day, Independence Day, and during the month of August. Finally, you can also learn from the in-district offices when your legislators are holding community meetings to speak to the public and hear about constituents’ concerns. While a one-on-one personal visit is the best way to lobby, you can communicate the local Humanist community’s interests in federal politics by attending these community forums and asking questions as a concerned constituent.
Step Two: Doing Your Homework
Before you meet with a member of Congress or their staff, you need to know where the legislator stands on the issues that are important to you. The AHA’s national staff can help you understand your congressperson’s stances on past and current issues. It is easy to check for yourself by visiting the Library of Congress on the Internet at http://thomas.loc.gov/. Once you are there, you can search for legislation and where your congressperson stands on the issue by bill number, phrase, or name. Finally, you can call the legislator’s office and ask about his/her position on pending legislation.
You also should try to learn, if possible, what relationship the member has with the Humanist community in your area. Find out if others have lobbied the member of congress you are meeting with and if they have other information on the member. Also, consider the most recent elections. Did the member win handily or just barely? Are they up for re-election soon? Are they considered a leader in Congress or just a “go along” member? Are there other constituencies supportive of the member who may be supportive of our issues, too (i.e., labor unions and civil rights organizations)? Finally, work with AHA staff to generate a list of the issues you wish to lobby about. The legislator’s office will ask what issues you are concerned about when scheduling the appointment. You can usually only expect an appointment to last 20 to 30 minutes, so use the time wisely. AHA staff can advise you on the items pending in Congress and how to plan your agenda.
Step Three: What to Bring
Occasionally, it will make sense to lobby an office by yourself. Usually you should bring a small cross section of your community to the meeting. Keeping the total number between 4 and 6 is generally best. Think of inviting people who show broad support on the particular issue you will be discussing or who have personal stories to tell that are related to this issue.
Step Four: Asking for the Appointment
When speaking with the scheduler for your representative explain the issues you wish to discuss, discuss the affiliation of the attendees and suggest some possible dates and times. It is best to be ready to meet as early as possible, to avoid legislative developments derailing your meeting. Also, it is often hard to meet with members themselves, so be prepared to have several possible dates and times. If it turns out that you can only meet with a staff member, make sure you mention the issues you wish to discuss so that the appropriate staff member or members will be there. (Understand that most meetings result in only meeting with congressional staff. Don’t consider lobbying staff unimportant; often, staff provide strong guidance to legislators in their decision-making.)
If you have difficulty in securing a response from an office, contact the AHA so we can help. Otherwise, follow any firm appointment with a confirmation letter or fax to the office. The letter should restate the issues to be covered (briefly, don’t debate in the letter), name the attendees and their affiliations and mention the date and time of the meeting. Be sure to include your phone numbers so they can contact you.
Step Five: Planning the Discussion
Assemble information on the topics you will be discussing in the meeting. The AHA can provide you with talking points and other material. State and local groups may have further information with a local angle on the issue.
Meet with the people accompanying you. Make certain that everyone understands the agenda and assign one point to each person. This will give each person an agenda topic that they make sure gets included in the discussion. It will also help take the stress off of people who might be nervous by giving them a specific topic to be responsible for. It is also very important that one person be appointed to keep the meeting going. It is easy for staff, legislators, and participants to lose track of time and monopolize the discussion. One person in the delegation should make sure that each issue gets covered and that specific requests you have of the legislator are asked before the meeting ends.
Step Six: The Visit
Showing proper respect for the office and the importance you place on the issue is reflected in your appearance and demeanor. Make sure you arrive on time.
Introduce each person attending the meeting with a couple of comments about their interest in the issue, what group they represent, the place where they live, etc. Start on a positive note. Thank the legislator for a recent good vote on one of our issues. If he or she isn’t particularly supportive of our issues, try bringing up a positive response on another kind of issue. If nothing else, you can always thank them for the meeting! Present the problem. Each person should proceed to make the points about the issue. If you are talking about specific legislation, make sure to talk about the bill number or name at the beginning. Don’t assume they know why you are there or what bill you are talking about. Be specific about your reasons to support or object to a bill. Also, be honest. If you don’t know the answer to a question, say so. Modesty goes a long way with staff and members. Promise to follow up and do so later. Be specific about what you would like the legislator to do. If you ask for a difficult stand or vote, be sure to acknowledge that in the conversation. Get the legislator to talk. If they aren’t interested in helping, legislators will frequently not say anything significant in hopes that you will talk away the time. Ask specific questions that require specific answers. If he or she is having a hard time agreeing, try to pinpoint the area of difficulty. This will help you in future lobbying efforts. Information about their position, their personal issues, ignorance, opponents lobbying against us on the issue…all of this is useful information for your visit. Finally, if you can’t get what you want, try to end on a positive note. Never threaten to oust the legislator in the next election if he or she doesn’t comply with your request. This is an old and rarely enforceable threat that will only destroy a relationship that you are trying to develop. (And you can still work against them come election time!) Hopefully, your research will have given you insight into appropriate second tier commitments for your issues. Finding something to agree on helps end the meeting on a positive (or at least neutral) note. Thank the official and staff for the meeting. Confirm any requests for information that have been made or promised and set a date you can reasonably respond by. Even if the meeting was less than successful, make it clear that you look forward to a future positive relationship.
Dealing with Staff
Often, even when your visit was confirmed with a legislator, you will end up meeting with their staff. Even if you do meet with the member, staff will be the likely focus of any follow up work and future substantial communication. Do not underestimate the power of a staff member. The members rely on their judgment more than anything. Impress them.
Make sure staff have your names, addresses, and phone numbers. Be sure to get their business cards. Ask for their title and duties. Are they the chief of staff, committee staff, counsel, or a legislative aide for a particular set of issues? Again, if the member or staff person is non-committal, be sure to understand what matters are holding back a legislator’s commitment on the issue. Are they receiving lots of calls from our opponents? Does the staff feel they have little information to advise the member? Is the member looking to hear from more constituents? All of this will help plan your next step.
After the Visit
Copy and clearly fill out the attached visit form. Be sure to fax or mail it to the AHA. Your visit may very likely help us make the difference in the next vote!
Make sure that each attendee sends a polite thank you note to the staff or member you met with. Be sure to mention any follow-up commitments you and/or the member made. Also, review the main points very briefly and the action you wanted the member to take. Finally, think about your next step. Likely next steps-after taking care of the follow up materials requested and the thank you letters-are to plan a letter writing campaign around the main issue or more lobby visits. If the member is particularly friendly or close to agreement, you may want to plan a public forum back in the state with the member and his/her constituents. A friendly member may also be willing to talk to other members of your congressional delegation, if that would help change their position or vote.
The Legislative Process
Anyone may draft a bill; however, only members of Congress can introduce legislation, and by doing so become the sponsor(s). There are four basic types of legislation: bills, joint resolutions, concurrent resolutions, and simple resolutions. The official legislative process begins when a bill or resolution is numbered – H.R. signifies a House bill and S. a Senate bill – referred to a committee and printed by the Government Printing Office.
Step 1. Referral to Committee:
With few exceptions, bills are referred to standing committees in the House or Senate according to carefully delineated rules of procedure.
Step 2. Committee Action:
When a bill reaches a committee it is placed on the committee’s calendar. A bill can be referred to a subcommittee or considered by the committee as a whole. It is at this point that a bill is examined carefully and its chances for passage are determined. If the committee does not act on a bill, it is the equivalent of killing it.
Step 3. Subcommittee Review:
Often, bills are referred to a subcommittee for study and hearings. Hearings provide the opportunity to put on the record the views of the Executive branch, experts, other public officials, supporters and opponents of the legislation. Testimony can be given in person or submitted as a written statement.
Step 4. Mark Up:
When the hearings are completed, the subcommittee may meet to “mark up” the bill, that is, make changes and amendments prior to recommending the bill to the full committee. If a subcommittee votes not to report legislation to the full committee, the bill dies.
Step 5. Committee Action to Report a Bill:
After receiving a subcommittee’s report on a bill, the full committee can conduct further study and hearings, or it can vote on the subcommittee’s recommendations and any proposed amendments. The full committee then votes on its recommendation to the House or Senate. This procedure is called “ordering a bill reported.”
Step 6. Publication of a Written Report:
After a committee votes to have a bill reported, the committee chairman instructs staff to prepare a written report on the bill. This report describes the intent and scope of the legislation, impact on existing laws and programs, position of the Executive branch, and views of dissenting members of the committee.
Step 7. Scheduling Floor Action:
After a bill is reported back to the chamber where it originated, it is placed in chronological order on the calendar. In the House there are several different legislative calendars, and the Speaker and majority leader largely determine if, when, and in what order bills come up. In the Senate there is only one legislative calendar.
Step 8. Debate:
When a bill reaches the floor of the House or Senate, there are rules or procedures governing the debate on legislation. These rules determine the conditions and amount of time allocated for general debate.
Step 9. Voting:
After the debate and the approval of any amendments, the bill is passed or defeated by the members voting.
Step 10. Referral to Other Chamber:
When a bill is passed by the House or the Senate it is referred to the other chamber where it usually follows the same route through committee and floor action. This chamber may approve the bill as received, reject it, ignore it, or change it.
Step 11. Conference Committee Action:
If only minor changes are made to a bill by the other chamber, it is common for the legislation to go back to the first chamber for concurrence. However, when the actions of the other chamber significantly alter the bill, a conference committee is formed to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate versions. If the conferees are unable to reach agreement, the legislation dies. If agreement is reached, a conference report is prepared describing the committee member’s recommendations for changes. Both the House and the Senate must approve of the conference report.
Step 12. Final Actions:
After a bill has been approved by both the House and Senate in identical form, it is sent to the President. If the President approves of the legislation, he signs it and it becomes law. Or, the President can take no action for ten days, while Congress is in session, and it automatically becomes law. If the President opposes the bill he can veto it; or, if he takes no action after the Congress has adjourned its second session, it is a “pocket veto” and the legislation dies.
Step 13. Overriding a Veto:
If the President vetoes a bill, Congress may attempt to “override the veto.” This requires a two thirds roll call vote of the members who are present in sufficient numbers for a quorum.
Each member of Congress has staff to assist him/her during a term in office. To be most effective in communicating with Congress, it is helpful to know the titles and principal functions of key staff.
Commonly Used Titles:
Administrative Assistant or Chief of Staff:
The Administrative Assistant reports directly to the member of Congress. He/she usually has overall responsibility for evaluating the political outcome of various legislative proposals and constituent requests. The Admin. Asst. is usually the person in charge of overall office operations, including the assignment of work and the supervision of key staff.
Legislative Director, Senior Legislative Assistant, or Legislative Coordinator:
The Legislative Director is usually the staff person who monitors the legislative schedule and makes recommendations regarding the pros and cons of particular issues. In some congressional offices there are several Legislative Assistants and responsibilities are assigned to staff with particular expertise in specific areas. For example, depending on the responsibilities and interests of the member, an office may include a different Legislative Assistant for health issues, environmental matters, taxes, etc.
Press Secretary or Communications Director:
The Press Secretary’s responsibility is to build and maintain open and effective lines of communication between the member, his/her constituency, and the general public. The Press Secretary is expected to know the benefits, demands, and special requirements of both print and electronic media, and how to most effectively promote the member’s views or position on specific issues.
Appointment Secretary, Personal Secretary, or Scheduler:
The Appointment Secretary is usually responsible for allocating a member’s time among the many demands that arise from congressional responsibilities, staff requirements, and constituent requests. The Appointment Secretary may also be responsible for making necessary travel arrangements, arranging speaking dates, visits to the district, etc.
The Caseworker is the staff member usually assigned to help with constituent requests by preparing replies for the member’s signature. The Caseworker’s responsibilities may also include helping resolve problems constituents present in relation to federal agencies, e.g., Social Security and Medicare issues, veteran’s benefits, passports, etc. There are often several Caseworkers in a congressional office.
Other Staff Titles:
Other titles used in a congressional office may include: Executive Assistant, Legislative Correspondent, Executive Secretary, Office Manager, and Receptionist.
Visiting Capitol Hill
Meeting with a member of Congress or congressional staff is a very effective way to convey a message about a specific legislative issue. Below are some suggestions to consider when planning a visit to a congressional office.
Plan Your Visit Carefully:
Be clear about what it is you want to achieve; determine in advance which member or committee staff you need to meet to achieve your purpose.
Make an Appointment:
When attempting to meet with a member, contact the Appointment Secretary/Scheduler. Explain your purpose and who you represent. It is easier for congressional staff to arrange a meeting if they know what you wish to discuss and your relationship to the area or interests represented by the member.
Be Prompt and Patient:
When it is time to meet with a member, be punctual and be patient. It is not uncommon for a Congressman or Congresswoman to be late, or to have a meeting interrupted, due to the member’s crowded schedule. If interruptions do occur, be flexible. When the opportunity presents itself, continue your meeting with a member’s staff.
Whenever possible, bring to the meeting information and materials supporting your position. Members are required to take positions on many different issues. In some instances, a member may lack important details about the pros and cons of a particular matter. It is therefore helpful to share with the member information and examples that demonstrate clearly the impact or benefits associated with a particular issue or piece of legislation.
Members of Congress want to represent the best interests of their district or state. Wherever possible, demonstrate the connection between what you are requesting and the interests of the member’s constituency. If possible, describe for the member how you or your group can be of assistance to him/her. Where it is appropriate, remember to ask for a commitment.
Be prepared to answer questions or provide additional information, in the event the member expresses interest or asks questions. Follow up the meeting with a thank you letter that outlines the different points covered during the meeting, and send along any additional information and materials requested.