I know very little about being a federal lobbyist. Unlike at the state level, I don’t know where lobbyists hang out in D.C., where they sit (if at all) to watch debates, how they wait for members of Congress to come out of sessions…I just never did any of that. Yet a big part of my job was lobbying on federal legislative issues, both as part of national coalitions with ambitious policy agendas and in my work with the Kansas Congressional delegation. So, when I tell nonprofit organizations, and my students, that they can and must lobby Congress, I am careful to explain what I don’t mean by that. By cultivating strong relationships with key members of Congress and, perhaps more importantly, their staff, and by carefully aligning yourself with coalitions that include strong DC-based operations, you can play a significant, if not always leading, role in shaping federal legislation. Importantly, you can do so in ways that help you build your skills and your power for fights at local and state levels as well.
Building relationships with members of Congress:
A. Your member of Congress
1. Open houses/legislative days at your agency
2. Delegation visit
3. Regular letters on priority issues (choose only a few, and well-run offices will flag your agency as caring about those topics and send you information unsolicited when there are upcoming or recent votes)
4. Get on their newsletter, ask for invitations to events, consider hosting a town hall or other forum (give examples from practice)
B. State congressional delegation
1. If necessary, build relationships with partners in those districts and help them to contact members of Congress
2. Consider attending the events of statewide members outside your area, so that they see you in surprising places
C. Finding sympathetic members–read coverage of your key issues to see which members of Congress are consistently quoted, research the positions of the members of the congressional committees that deal with your issues to see who are likely allies, use sources like Congressional Quarterly to find out more about the ‘back stories’ of members to see who might have a personal or ideological connection to your particular cause
D. Connecting to influential offices–if there is a particular member whose support you really need (a committee chair, a caucus leader, a ranking minority), you can sometimes connect through organizations/constituents in his/her home state (they may need some of your expertise regarding the issue and advocacy, while they have the legitimacy with that member) or through DC-based organizations who may have a relationship built on years of work with that member. If you can’t find one of those avenues, it never hurts to make a cold call to the relevant staffer (find out in advance who this is) with a pitch prepared explaining who you are, what you care about, and why it makes sense, given the member’s particular interests, for him/her to talk with you). You just might not get very far initially. Your coalition-building work and media coverage can help you here, so you can try again later, after you’ve built up some more leverage.
1. Make it your business to know who is on the committees with jurisdiction on your area of legislative interest—what interests them, to whom do they respond?
2. Committees are very powerful in the legislative process–“masters rather than servants”
F. Working with congressional staff
I make a point of always telling an organization or advocate I’m advising, in advance of their first trip to DC or effort to lobby Congress, NOT to be disappointed if they only speak with staff members. I clearly remember one Executive Director being devastated because he had ‘only met with the Chief of Staff and never even saw the member.’ Of course, meeting with the Chief of Staff of a member of Congress, as a representative of a nonprofit organization, is a pretty major coup, and I could only hope that the ED had not conveyed his mistaken disappointment to this potentially very powerful ally!
Staff of members of Congress have distinct roles and specific responsibilities, and it’s important to understand these so that you can figure out how each fits into your strategy.
1. Legislative aides have jurisdiction over one of more substantive areas–you want to connect with those who work on the topics that are of most interest to you, figure out how you can educate them on your perspectives, and learn what you can from them about legislation progressing through Congress and about the member’s stance.
2. Scheduler–you need this person if you want the member of Congress to attend events at your organization, when you’re trying to get a meeting, and when you’re thinking about coming to DC. They often have considerable discretion over who gets a meeting and for how long, so you want to cultivate relationships here.
3. District staff–these folks are primarily responsible for constituent services, but they also relay messages on policy issues back to the member, staff the member at some local policy-related events, and can provide some intelligence to sympathetic groups regarding the types of amount of communication coming in from constituents on a given issue.
4. Chief of staff–if/when you meet with this person, he/she will often be more concerned about political merits of proposal than substantive ones—they serve as gatekeepers for legislators
G. Making the most of your DC visit
1. Make an appointment with a specific staffer by explaining what you want to talk about
2. Bring written information to leave with them (including about your agency)
3. Pleasantries, brief presentation, questions/discussion, follow-up and next steps
Even more than lobbying at the state level, engaging Congress really does get easier the more you practice. Those offices that seem so intimidating on your first trip, the streets in DC that are so confusing, the ‘tricks’ like faxing your letters rather than mailing them so that they don’t end up in an anthrax-screening area for weeks, even the metal detectors and no-cell phone rules in every federal building…all of that seems much more manageable the second and third and fourth time around. You CAN do it, and in the process, you can win some credibility with some of our nation’s most powerful policymakers, alliances that can help you when dealing with a recalcitrant state legislator or a stubborn federal bureaucracy.