When you first ask for a meeting with your member of Congress (moC), the response a staffer is most likely to give you is “No”. A former congressional staffer explains why this is, and how to make the most of it.
Before I worked in a congressional office, I assumed that most people who contacted their members of Congress did so because they wanted to engage in a serious discussion about policy issues they cared about. But I soon discovered that constituents contacted the district office I worked in for all kinds of reasons, such as these (actual examples):
- Some were offended by a comment the congressman made about the New York Giants.
- Some were delighted by a comment the congressman made about the New York Giants.
- Some were angry about their town’s zip code and wanted a different one.
- Some were upset that the produce at ShopRite wasn’t as fresh as it used to be.
- One gave us regular progress updates on the time machine he was building in his basement.
Of course, lots of constituents did have policy concerns. Of the ones who came in for lobby visits:
- Many made partisan attacks, or lectured without making a clear request, or requested things that were far outside the purview of Congress.
- Some had constructive, thought-provoking things to say, whether encouraging or challenging.
- And every now and then, someone not only spoke compellingly, but listened.
When you contact a congressional office, this is who’s keeping you company in the inbox. Not surprisingly, they will want to do some screening. The staffer who takes your request doesn’t yet know that you’ll turn out to be one of the most impressive groups of grassroots lobbyists they’ve ever met with (and with FCNL’s training, you really will be). And they’ll certainly want to meet with you themselves before they consider letting you meet with your moC.
So after that first meeting with a staffer, once you’ve impressed them, you can meet with the moC in person next, right? …Well, probably not quite yet.
Most of us are protective of our time, and we want to use it in a way that reflects our goals and priorities. Your moC’s office is just the same. The moC’s time is one of the most valuable assets a congressional office has to offer, and the moC’s schedule must reflect the goals and priorities of the congressional office. Managing this schedule is an enormous responsibility. The moC’s time must be divided between Washington and the district (the entire district, which may be very large); they have to cover all of their legislative, outreach, campaign, and political party responsibilities, all of which are manifold; and of course, now and then they like to see their families, or even rest.
A skilled scheduler must be very good at saying no. For every invitation they accept, they turn down dozens, if not hundreds more. Sometimes they even clash with the moC—or the moC’s spouse—over whether there’s room in the schedule for a grandchild’s dance recital or a family wedding. When something that does make it onto the schedule ends up being a waste of time, you can be sure that the scheduler (and the staffer who recommended it) is going to hear about it.
When you make that first request to your district office, remember that for all they know, you’re one of those people who want a new zip code. It never hurts to ask for a meeting with your moC, but your request will go into the very long queue of requests and will almost certainly be sent back to a staffer. If you want to save time and schedule a meeting quickly, skip that step and simply ask to meet with a staffer from the beginning. Accept a meeting with any staffer who will meet with you: you are coming in at the ground floor and beginning to build up a trusting relationship. You’ll make a good first impression, and then you’ll keep going. Over the long haul, you will build relationships with the staffers you most want to connect with. Eventually, you may even get a place on that coveted congressional schedule.
It’s worth remembering, however, that meeting with the right staffer is often even more effective than meeting with the moC. Because your moC has such a wide range of responsibilities, they rely on each staff member to hold a deep knowledge of a particular area. If you’re lobbying on military spending, for example, the legislative staff member who works every day on that issue is often better equipped to discuss it with you than the moC. When it comes time to vote for the next defense bill, your moC will turn to that staffer for a briefing and advice. It’s in your interest to know that staffer’s questions and concerns, because these are the considerations they will bring up to the moC.
The most effective way to influence your congressional office is to go in regularly so you can build up a relationship with your moC and their staff. Just like any relationship worth having, this takes time. Most likely you’ll begin by meeting locally with district staff members, then work through them to form connections with the D.C. legislative staff. It’s important to build relationships with both the district staff and the D.C. staff, and even more important to maintain relationships with both. Be polite, be persistent, and remember that the most effective advocates are in it for the long haul.