HOW TO COMMUNICATE WITH U.S. SENATORS, REPRESENTATIVES, AND STAFF

Contributed by David Lindsay, SAA Government Affairs Manager(David_Lindsay@saa.org)

The United States has always had a love / hate relationship with government.  The general public’s regard for “city hall,” including the federal government, has risen and fallen with the changes in the political winds and shifts in societal consensus.  Over the past 100 years, however, the U.S. government has seen a vast expansion in the role that it plays in the nation’s life, as the public -- in order to address problems occurring in an enormous range of areas – has seen fit to give Washington an increasing number of mandates to solve those problems.  From welfare to environmental protection, from civil rights to health care to business regulation to labor laws to food safety, the federal government is involved in some way.  Today, almost all activities in the U.S. have some sort of federal component.  This reality makes having good and effective relationships with federal decision-makers a necessity, not a luxury.

Since the Antiquities Act of 1906, the preservation of historic properties has been an important function of the federal government.  Over the years, protection for historic resources – including archaeological sites and materials – was greatly expanded.  Today, the federal role in archaeology is significant, so it is important that the science of archaeology is understood in Washington, and one of the most important groups of people in Washington to focus on is Congress.

Every organization has its own culture, its own way of operating and getting things done.  Congress is no exception.  Through the years, a certain method has evolved in how people communicate with Congress.  Fair or not, observing this system is vital if one wants to be effective in getting his or her message to resonate.  This is because when you are petitioning Congress you are not just trying to make a policy statement.  You are also trying to build personal relationships with Members of Congress and their staffs, and good personal relationships with decision makers are the best assets one can have.

Congressional consideration of any one matter will be influenced by a huge range of factors, most of which have nothing to do with the issue you are concerned with.  Consequently, there is no one set formula for lobbying Congress.  However, there are some basic components present in almost all lobbying campaigns that involve grassroots participation:

1. Define exactly what it is that you are trying to accomplish. 

Do you want to see funding for a program increased (or decreased)?  Are you trying to create a new law, change an existing law or prevent a change that someone else is proposing?  Knowing exactly what your goal is helps determine the steps that you need to take to reach that goal. 

2. Determine which committees in Congress will handle the issue.

Both the House and Senate have committees that consider specific policy issues.  There will be a committee (or committees) with jurisdiction over your issue in each chamber.  For example, the Ways and Means Committee handles tax and trade matters for the House.  In the Senate, those subjects are under the jurisdiction of the Finance Committee.  Once you’ve identified the pertinent committees in each chamber, list the committee members’ names and get their contact information. 

3. Develop materials to support your position.

It is very important that you have something on paper to leave behind when you do your visits.  The material should be brief – no more than two pages – and should, in precise language, cover the following: a) who you (or your group) are; b) what the problem is that you are trying to address; c) what the solution is or should be; and d) what you are urging that Member of Congress or Senator to do.

4. Make contact with your own Representative and Senators.

Even if your Representative or Senators aren’t on the committees that you will be dealing with, they represent you, and will be interested to know what you are trying to accomplish.  If they’re not able to be your primary supporters on the Hill, they can often point you in the direction of others who might (see #5).  If Congress is in session, and you are making the trip to Washington, try to set up a meeting with them there.  If they are back in their home state or district, schedule a meeting with them in their district office.  Oftentimes it is easier to meet with them back home.  Most have one scheduler for their D.C. appointments, and another for their district / state appointments.  If the Senators or the Representative aren’t available, meet with the staff person who handles the general area that your issue falls under.  In the meeting, be friendly and try to start off by discussing anything you might have in common.  Remember – you’re establishing a personal relationship.  Try to keep the meeting relatively brief – no more than 20 minutes.  Summarize the briefing material you brought and will leave with the Member or staff person – 1) who you are, 2) the problem, 3) the solution, 4) what you’re asking that Member to do.

5. Find champions.

Members of Congress who enthusiastically support your project are invaluable.  They can map out a specific legislative strategy, draft a bill, go places you cannot, and speak to people you probably won’t get to speak with in order to build support.  Senators or Representatives who are members of the committees with which you must deal are the primary candidates, especially if they’re senior members or the chairpersons of those committees.  A Member who is part of the leadership of either party is an avenue you should also explore.  There are any number of reasons a Member might support what you’re doing – personal or professional interest are very important.  Once you have that champion’s support, work with his or her staff on a legislative strategy.  It is at this stage that you will get down to the nitty-gritty of working an issue on the Hill.  Make any changes necessary to your message and materials.  It must be kept in mind that every issue is subject to the vagaries of the larger legislative / political situation.  Even if your champion is chair of the committee, he or she might not be able to move your bill right away.  They have to factor many other things into their plans, so you must understand if your project isn’t at the top of their list.  Do not be offended or impatient. 

6. Meet with committee staff.

Once you have found a champion, and you have a legislative plan, a meeting with the staff of the committee or subcommittee is in order.  In securing a meeting, it helps if your champion is a Member of the panel.  These staff members are experts in the legal and political considerations of your issue.  In addition, they write the amendments, substitutes, and reports of the bills considered by the panel, and run the hearings and markups.  They will implement their chairperson’s wishes, but are themselves very important in determining how and even if a bill will be considered by the panel.  If they are supportive of your goal, or even noncommittal about it, having met with them and explained your point of view can go miles in improving your chances.  In the meeting, you must be precise about what you’re trying to accomplish, and must be prepared to answer detailed questions.  If you are proposing a change in the law, or the creation of a new law, it helps if you can bring an attorney who knows that law intimately.

7. Meet with the members of the committees.

If your issue is going to be considered by a committee, it is essential that as many Members of that panel know about the issue and your point of view.  In securing appointments with Members or their staff, it is helpful – though not mandatory – if your group has people in that Member’s state or district.  This is where your grassroots network will come in.  Have people in that state or district write or call this Member of Congress, the more people the better.  Remember that some forms of communication are better than others – personalized contacts in the form of emails, calls, or letters are preferable to any kind of form letter.  Some blast emails are blocked because they can clog Capitol Hill servers.  The goal of these meetings is to inform them of the issue and your point of view, point out that your issue has support with people in that Member’s state or district, and to ask them to do a specific thing – cosponsor your bill, if that’s your strategy; vote for or against a bill that will be voted on, etc.

One final note – the old saw about the drafting of legislation being like the making of sausage is absolutely true.  It is doubtful that there has ever been a bill that contained exactly what its supporters wanted.  If you are determined to hold out for “the perfect bill,” you will die waiting for that legislation to be enacted.  There have certainly been times when a bill has been changed too much for its supporters to tolerate, and they’ve decided that no bill is better than the one that was considered.  That is generally a rare occurrence, however.  You must be willing to agree to some changes that you’d rather weren’t included, to not let the perfect be enemy of the good.   

This document is certainly not meant to be an exhaustive study of how people can lobby Congress.  It can serve, hopefully, as a resource of ideas that will help you achieve your goals in Congress.

Posted by Patrice L. Jeppson September 12, 2004.