By Eleanor Wertman, MPH
Last week, the Indivisibull team met with a former DC staffer to hear her insights about contacting your members of Congress effectively. Shenoted that many practices and priorities vary across congressional offices, but below are some general tips to consider when reaching out to your elected officials.
Meeting with Your MOC
Meeting with your representative and/or their staff is the most powerful way to advocate for a cause that is important to you. The former staffer we spoke with shared some best practices to consider when visiting a member of Congress (MOC):
What should I talk about with my MOC?
Before your visit, do some research. Look up what committees your congresspeople are on. What issues do they care about? How have they voted in the past? Pick 1-2 timely issues that are already a focus for your congressperson. Ideally, your issues should be the subject of pending bills and/or a “hot topic” in the media. Determine at least one clear thing you are asking your MOC to do (e.g. vote a certain way, exclude a certain provision from pending legislation, etc.).
Who should I meet with, and who should come with me?
Identify 2-3 staffers within your congressperson’s office who are focused on the issue(s) you want to discuss and ask if they can participate, especially if your congressperson is not available for the meeting. Provide a pre-set agenda if you can so the staffers can prepare.
If you are working with several groups, bring one person from each group with you. Coordinate ahead of time to ensure your “asks” for your MOC are aligned. Affiliating yourself with a Chamber of Commerce and/or a trade association can be appealing to Republican MOCs.
What else can I do to make my meeting effective?
Try to identify at least one thing that you agree with your MOC about. Take an approach that is as bipartisan as possible and point out aspects of your argument that are likely to appeal to both sides of the aisle. Provide positive feedback about your MOC where possible; staffers and your MOC will be more likely to listen to you.
Bring a 1-2 page document with you explaining the key points from your discussion to leave behind with staffers. Include contact information so staff can follow up with you if needed.
Be polite and respectful, and cultivate a relationship with the staffers who attended the meeting. Get their email addresses and phone extensions if you can. Follow up after the meeting to thank all participants for their time and check in about relevant legislation.
(Indivisibull regularly meets with our MoCs to talk about issues that are important to progressives in Durham. Are you interested in joining us? Fill out this survey to let us know your interest and availability!)
After in-person meetings, phone calls are the best way to contact your MOCs. The staffer we spoke with provided lots of advice on how to make your calls as impactful as possible.
Who should I call?
DO NOT CALL MOCs IF YOU ARE NOT THEIR CONSTITUENT. Every congressional office has a database listing all adults of voting age within each district. If you are not a constituent, your call will not be counted. Calls from non-constituents can undermine the credibility of calls from actual constituents.
How are my calls counted/tracked?
The constituent database has some simple ways to track constituent opinions, e.g. whether someone supports or opposes a specific bill, plus a section for notes if a constituent requests a response. Constituent tracking can vary by office and by topic. Some offices will compile counts of calls about “hot topic” issues and send those counts to MOCs daily, then send call tallies about less urgent topics weekly.
Some offices tally calls based on the raw number of calls about an issue, while others simply tally how many individuals call about a topic (i.e. you are only counted once no matter how many times you call). Consider asking a staffer how their office counts calls.
If you leave a voicemail, your call will still be counted! Staffers check voicemails daily and tally them like constituent calls. Consider providing your full address when leaving a voicemail to ensure staffers can confirm you are a constituent.
What should I call about?
Call about specific legislation (including the number and name of the bill when available). If your MOC is on a committee reviewing a specific bill, call while the bill is still in committee. After the bill is out of committee, the MOC can’t do much to affect the bill except for vote for or against it. Check out https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/ to figure out bills’ committee assignments, then go to the appropriate committee website to see if any testimony/hearings about the bill have been scheduled. If a committee has lots of activity around a bill, this is a good indicator that the bill is more likely to make it to a floor vote.
If your MOC is undecided about an issue, it can be effective to call multiple times that week to try to flood the phones and turn up the pressure. When calling about major topics like healthcare, keep in mind that your MOC may have little leeway to change their vote because of pressure from their party. Be sure to keep an eye on smaller, more “niche” legislation and call about that as well; it can be easier to find common ground on a less controversial topic, and you’ll be more likely to actually influence a vote.
Calling about something that’s not currently the subject of pending legislation can still be useful, as staffers will code your response and be able to pull it up later. For these kinds of calls, your ask is to leave things as they are and not make things worse.
What should I say?
Keep it concise. State your name, zip code, and a pro/con statement about a specific issue. Most staffers simply record pro/con stance and nothing else, unless you specifically ask for a response. If you are calling about multiple issues, call once and state each issue clearly; begin the call by saying how many things you are calling about.
If you have a question about a specific bill, such as how it’s progressing through committee, consider asking to speak to the Legislative Aide (LA) for that particular issue. The LA will be more likely to speak to you when Congress is in recess.
If you disagree with your MOC on something, don’t mention that you’re calling as part of a group or an organization. However, if you agree with your MOC’s stance, it can be helpful to mention your group affiliation when calling.
Which office should I call?
When calling your MOC, don’t forget to call district offices from time to time. District staffers tend to be older and more experienced than DC office staff and get a lot of face time with the MOC when they’re at home. Because of their expertise and the relatively lower call volume at district offices, district office staffers may be more likely to engage during phone calls and provide information about MOC positions on specific issues. Most DC staffers will not have the authority/willingness to comment on their MOC’s stance.
What about calling committees?
If you call a committee about a bill they’re considering, you’ll probably get a staff assistant who is not accountable to voters. They may or may not record your input. However, it can be helpful to call committee staffers to ask about the progress of a bill through the committee. They may be able to give you a sense about where the bill is in the drafting process, if the bill is unlikely to make it out of committee, etc.
(Indivisibull is hosting an event at Ponysaurus on April 1st where we will have call scripts to call your MoCs about issues you care about. Join us!)
Writing to Congress
Personalized letters and emails can be a good way to share a more personal story with your MOC without having a face-to-face meeting. The more specific your letter/email is, the more likely it is to be sent to the MOC. Form letters like those generated by MoveOn.org and other big groups are likely counted in aggregate but do not have the impact of a personalized message, since they take little effort to write.
Sending letters can be a good test of how MOCs respond to constituent feedback, although keep in mind that a letter about a major issue will likely only get a form letter response.
Keep in mind that it takes time for congressional staff to process physical mail because of security concerns. If you want to contact your congressperson about an upcoming vote, consider calling instead of writing to ensure your opinion is heard in time.
It’s important but challenging to keep track of bills’ status in Congress. Individual committee websites often have information about scheduled hearings and votes on bills. However, floor vote schedules can be harder to find. The Republican Cloakroom (http://repcloakroom.house.gov/ or @senatecloakroom on Twitter) posts information about House floor votes and who voted for what. Also, consider downloading Whip Watch, a free iTunes app created by House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer that provides real-time updates about House votes (https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/whip-watch/id995281189?mt=8). To track what’s happening in the Senate, follow the action on Twitter using @senategopfloor or check out the Democratic and Republican Senate Calendars (https://democrats.senate.gov/2017/03/#.WNfgNI61uRs and https://www.republican.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/senate-calendar, respectively). You can also use a resource like https://www.govtrack.us/ to get daily or weekly updates about specific legislation.