Since the November elections, we’ve seen unprecedented numbers of Americans speaking out on public policy. Voters want to influence their lawmakers on high-stakes issues from healthcare to climate change, education to immigration, foreign affairs to trade policy. The question, for many, is how to communicate effectively, especially when Washington sometimes seems impervious to the average citizen.
Between us, we’ve spent 80 years working in Congress and we know something about effective constituent communications. There are a handful of unwritten rules that can amplify your voice in these tempestuous times.
Every year, concerned groups and individuals flock to Washington to make their case on Capitol Hill. That’s worthwhile, but there is an easier way, and one that may give you an even better chance of meeting face to face not with a staffer but with your senator and Congress member themselves.
Check the “full calendar” listings on Web pages for the House and Senate — or use the portal at the Library of Congress website www.congress.gov — to see when a district or state “work period” is scheduled (one begins this weekend). That means your representatives will be in their home districts.
Call your representative’s local office to find out when and where he or she will be holding office hours, touring schools and businesses, and holding town hall meetings. Then call the legislator’s D.C. office — the operator at 202-224-3121 can connect you — and request a meeting in the district office. Be respectful but persistent; if your representatives can’t see you during the upcoming district or state work period, when can they?
Make sure to explain that you are a constituent; politicians do not enjoy long careers if they snub their voters. Request a ten-minute meeting. Be clear about the topic and be flexible about when you can meet.
Assemble a small group of voters of various backgrounds who share your concerns and have expertise to share. If you want to advocate for or against an education matter, include a representative of a teacher’s group, PTA parents, special education advocates; if healthcare is your issue, bring along a doctor, a hospital administrator, or a patient advocate.
Know the status of the issue or the bill in question. Is it in committee; is it scheduled for the floor? Again, the Library of Congress website can help. Demonstrating knowledge of the legislative process will make your discussion more effective.
Argue your position clearly and simply, and be very specific about what you expect the legislator to do. Don’t issue threats or be confrontational. Keep the small talk brief and the meeting short; former Rep. Morris K. Udall (D-Arizona) used to complain about meetings that go on and on because “everything has been said, but not everyone has said it.” Choose your best spokesperson to make the case, take a picture, and say thank you.
If you can’t be part of a face-to-face meeting, calls, emails, texts, tweets and other communication can be effective. Follow the same rules as above: Be courteous, clear and brief, and always say what action you support. Despite public skepticism, legislators do pay attention when the calls and messages roll in; and don’t forget letters to the editor, again co-signed by a diverse a group of constituents.
Consider a media strategy: You may be able to arrange to speak with reporters after a meeting to describe what your group requested and the response. And show up at the legislator’s town halls or other public appearances: Sometimes, questions and issues need to be raised in public.
A key rule of politics is to assume nothing. You may think you know how your representative will vote, but it never hurts to weigh in to make sure. If your perspective is not heard and the other side’s is, the legislator may feel pressured to cast a vote you would never have anticipated. Besides, politicians like to hear from supporters.
Follow-up is crucial as well; if you are granted a meeting, send a thank-you note immediately that reiterates your request. No matter how cordial the encounter, never presume you have persuaded anyone. The other side has cordial meetings, too.
Continue to make calls and send emails as the issue is debated and the vote nears. No matter what happens, send another note: a thank you if you got the result you wanted, or a civil note of deep disappointment. Always maintain open communications and good relations; in politics, today’s adversary is the crucial ally you may need on another issue.
You can extend your influence by joining or volunteering with advocacy organizations. Our suggestion: Throw your lot in with groups that have proven records of success rather than newly minted, single-issue start-ups.
You don’t need to have been in politics for decades to know that you win some and you lose some. We hope this advice will help you win more often than you lose in this critical period for our country.
George Miller (D-Martinez) represented California in Congress from 1975 to 2015. John Lawrence teaches at the University of California Washington Center; he was chief of staff for Miller and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) from 1975 through 2013.