Meeting with elected officials
Living within a representative democracy, senators, representatives, and legislators all have the obligation to vote in the best interest of your community. Likewise, as a citizen within a representative democracy, you have the responsibility to tell them what the best interests of your community are.
Although, all forms of contact with your elected officials can produce positive results, the most effective method of lobbying is to personally meet with your elected representatives. You should treat this appointment with the mindset that it is exactly like any typical, although important, business meeting.
Consider our following suggestions when planning a visit with elected officials or their staff:
- Plan your visit: Meet with the officials who represent you. Sometimes elected officials do not give priority to those constituents who are not in their districts. Identify beforehand which member of the legislative body you need to talk with to achieve your purpose, then be clear as to what you want to accomplish. In essence, know what you are going to say and who you wish to say it to. If you have a checklist of arguments or concerns, type it out and give it to them for further reference.
- Schedule an appointment: The higher up your official is, the more staff he or she will have. To schedule a meeting with a congressman, note that each member of Congress has an appoint ment secretary who you need to contact to arrange a meeting. Tell them the specific dates and times you would be available to meet and explain your purpose and why you want to meet with them. Staff members and schedulers can better arrange a meeting if they know precisely what your meeting is about, therefore note any specific legislation you would like to discuss. Make sure you have an idea of how long the meeting will last as most legislators like them short and sweet. In Washington, D.C. the unwritten rule is that meetings are 15 minutes long. That should be enough time for you to accomplish two goals: (1) Tell the legislator what you want them to do and why and (2) Get feedback returned from them as to their feelings on the issues at hand.
- Be on time and be patient: When seeing any elected official, be punctual. However, it is important to remember that it is not uncommon for them to run behind schedule or to have meetings interrupted. If there does happen to be an interruption, flexibility is a must. If it comes to it and the chance presents itself, continue the meeting with a member of their staff.
- Be prepared: Have accurate information and material available on the issue of concern. If you'd like your representative to support or oppose a specific bill, be sure you know its exact name and number. Elected officials are required to hold positions on many various issues, and there may be an instance where an official may lack detailed information on a topic. Therefore, it is helpful to the official to receive information that can clearly demonstrate the pros and cons associated with a particular issue or piece of legislation. Understand there are always two sides to any issue, and the more you know about the arguments of the other side, the more effective you will be. Know what positions your representative has had historically on this or related issues. Stress your thanks for their past support
- You don't have to be an expert: While it is important to be prepared, you are not expected to know the very last detail of legislation or to present airtight arguments that would survive in a court of law. The most effective points for you to convey are why the issue is important to you and that you feel passionately about it. This meeting should have the feel of an informative conversation with your elected representative or staff and not the feel of a lecture or the reading off of facts and figures.
- Pin them down: Legislators try to dodge and weave because they don't like to make voters angry. Their job is to make everyone happy and feel that they had their voice heard. Your job is to get to the bottom line. It's nice to feel happy and have the satisfaction that you've been heard, but where do they stand? Be prepared for the slick legisla tor to express great empathy with your position, make you feel good, but not take a position! In a polite way, pin them down, e.g., "I am encouraged to hear your concern, but will you vote for or against the bill?"; or, "I'm glad to hear you agree with us in concept, but will you cosponsor H.R. 123?".
- Be political: Elected officials actively seek to represent the best interests of their constituents. Whenever possible, draw a correlation between what you are requesting and the interests of your community. If possible, show your official that you are not the only one who feels the way you do - that you are a part of a team. Quite apart from the merits of an issue, the legislator might not want to take your side because he or she might not want to take "the political heat." You can help solve this problem. You can offer "carrots" to counteract the heat - Offer to write letters of praise to the editor, make supportive phone calls to local talk radio, or even send out press release from you organization thanking them for their support.
- Be responsive: If your legislator expresses an interest in your request, be ready to answer questions or provide additional information about it. If there is any information you're not sure of, let your representative know you will quickly get them any futher information in which they have interest.
- Don't be intimidated: Sure, you are on their turf, but remember, you are their boss. They work for you - Just be polite about it.
- Follow up: After your meeting, follow up with a handwritten 'Thank You' letter reviewing your discussion. Include any additional information requested. Note that you look forward to seeing them take action on your issues of interest.
- Maintain the relationship: Keep an eye on your representative's actions on your issues. When they sponsor a piece of legislation that is in aggreement with you, send a 'Thank You' email. If you don't see them taking action on the issues you discussed during your meeting, make a follow-up call or write a note reminding them of the interest you stressed during your meeting.
If done consistently and professionally, meeting with your elected officials will enable you to be very effective in furthering our causes and beliefs. Building a relationship with your senator, con gressman or any other elected official will not only further our standing as an organization and for you as an individual citizen on a single, particular issue; this budding relationship will also provide opportunities to positively affect the outcome of future legislation and the further direction of policy, as well.
Remember, if traveling to Washington, D.C. to visit with your senators or representative is not an option for you, every member of Congress has an office in their congressional district and staff who are there for you. A member of your representative's staff will be very happy to set an appointment to meet with you locally.