Saturday, December 24, 2016

2017 RESOLUTION: Visit Congress in Person

The best cure for the post-election 2016 blues (and coming-of-Trump trepidation is to go meet with your member of Congress (and/or other representatives) in person and feel your power . . . !

Alexander Calder's Mountain and Clouds
inside Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, DC
(Richard Nowitz/National Geographic)
 I was just looking at the impressive array of posts on the Desert Beacon blog, and I saw this admonition:

Citizens Have More Power Than They Realize. Most of the staff surveyed said constituent visits to the Washington office (97%) and to the district/state office (94%) have ‘some’ or ‘a lot’ of influence on an undecided Member, more than any other influence group or strategy.

(All of the advice in this post is useful - see "Communicating With Congress: Some Advice".)

It inspired me to make a resolution: in 2017 I'm going to get in front of my representatives more. (I got a good start in 2016 - see On Nuclear Weapons: We Need Tenacity and  NUKES: Your Call to Your Congressman Matters.)

This reminds me that I once wrote some suggestions of my own for communicating with Congress. Here are some best practices for groups making office visits to representatives. I wrote it several years ago in connection with my work with No Drones Network.

(1) Build relationships

One of the secrets of effective lobbyists is that they know that the positions on issues that the politicians take rest on the shoulders of their staff.  To be effective, build relationships with the staff.

It is often confusing to find oneself in a meeting with a staff person, when one is under the impression that the really IMPORTANT person to talk to is the officeholder. However, the staff person is almost always the resident expert on a topic.  The road to "yes" has to pass through the staff person.

I have frequently found that it is the staff people who have the greatest appreciation for the issue knowledge that I am able to bring, and have the deepest commitment to doing the right thing on the issue.  And certainly they know the keys to convincing the officeholder.

Imagine the staff as your "inside" advocate . . . and then try to solve the problem of how to make that a reality.

So ... cultivate those relationships!

(2) Practice time management

One of the best ways to be taken seriously by the people you meet with is if they can see that you have prepared what you are going to say, and who is going to say it, and that you are going to make extremely efficient use of their time.

I have frequently seen how staff people begin to warm up to the group when they see this done.  In my experience, it is extremely effective to proceed as follows:

* start with a quick round of introductions: name, how connected to the district, affiliation;

* then present ~ 3 main points.  For instance, one person might give an overview of the presentation, then 3 other people in succession each speak BRIEFLY AND SUCCINCTLY to one of the main points.  Then the person you are meeting with should respond.

It is actually a good practice to have your talking points on paper, and to provide a copy to the people you are meeting with.  That encourages them to focus on what you want, and to try to give it to you.

It is extremely important to know what role each participant on your team is taking, and to have discipline.  Meetings become de-focussed if people are interrupting each other to make points and emphasizing issues that are not the most important one to emphasize at a given moment.

There should be a clear leader, and the team should take direction from the leader.

(3) Present logical arguments

Some of the best advice I ever received was, "Start to plan your meeting by writing a very well-argued, logical, informed letter of about two pages. You are talking to people who respect well-structured, well-thought-out argument."  This was very helpful to me, because I had somehow imagined other factors being more important -- for instance, impassioned rhetoric.

The other practices recommended here take their power from being done in connection with such a clear set of arguments.  This forms the core of the entire office visit.

And when you think about it, it makes sense: these are people whose work, day-in, day-out, involves laws, briefs, debate, and the process of legislation.  Naturally, they feel most comfortable when they can see a clear set of arguments presented.

(4) Speak from personal experience

People in congressional offices love to hear about the real experiences of real people.  I have very distinct memories of being in meetings, and when a member of our group started to say, "I've been interested in Pakistan ever since I went there for my junior year in college . . . " or "I've visited Pakistan every 2 years to visit my grandmother . . . " they perk right up and smile and start to ask questions. 

Think about how you can connect what you want to say to your personal experience.  Your lived experience matters!

(5) Emphasize community commitment

Ideally, you will be visiting with a small group, including multiple people who live in the district and/or have involvement in the district.  This is where your small-town location is an ASSET.

If you can, in the course of your remarks, rope in additional members of your community, that makes your position even stronger.  (e.g. "When we held an event about drones attended by 35 members of St. John's church, it was surprising to see how concerned all those people were about this issue . . . . ")

(6) Have an "ask" (or "asks")

Every visit should climax with the presentation of one or more "asks," and the response of the person you are meeting with. 

A good strategy is to include a doable "ask" in every visit.  This begins to establish a pattern of you making "asks" and them saying "yes." 

Sometimes an "ask" is very easy and concrete:  attend a community event (or send a representative).

Sometimes an "ask" is legislation-specific:  vote "YES" on such-and-such a bill.

Sometimes an "ask" is broader:  e.g. "work with your colleagues to hold hearings on the drone killings in (location)."

And, of course, there are overarching "asks," as well:  e.g. "work with us to bring about a total ban on drone killings."

(7) Be in it for the long haul

Every visit should involve the exchange of business cards, and a provision for follow-up.

It is a good practice to offer to supply specific information resources in the course of the meeting. (Example: I would like to send you the link to the article about our public meeting on drones killings in (town).)  This offers an opportunity for follow-up.

At a minimum, an email should be sent within a week of the meeting, thanking the people you met with for their time. 

If you are willing to put in a little extra effort, send a written thank you. (Believe me, it will be remembered!)

And then: get out your calendar and start planning in advance for your follow-up visit. ;-)

Related posts

When it comes down to a question of war, Congress must decide. And when Congress must decide, that means people's voices must be heard.

(See Illinois says "No U.S. Attack on Syria" (Is Congress Listening?) )

Let's focus for a moment: what might be accomplished if there was a concerted and effective push by antiwar people in precisely those states that swing election after election?

(See An Antiwar Thought Experiment: Swing the Swing States?)

The decision about whether to live with the threat of nuclear annihilation is our decision. And that is why the entire country is mobilizing for mass action for nuclear disarmament in 2015. Are we capable of making sure the messengers -- Obama, Putin, the other agents of government -- hear their instructions from us clearly?

(See NEEDED: Heroes to Bring About Nuclear Disarmament )

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