Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about effective advocacy. If you have a specific question, feel free to email the Advocacy Guru at firstname.lastname@example.org.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
What can I ask elected officials to do for me (and what can’t they do?)
Before deciding to call, write, or visit your member of Congress to share your views on policy issues you care about, consider these basic ground rules.
What a Congressional Office Can do for You
These are the main activities that a congressional office can undertake on your behalf.
- Send a letter to a federal agency about a concern you may have with a particular agency action, or in general reference to a grant application you have made.
- Send a letter to an influential member of Congress, such as a Committee chair or a member of the leadership, about a particular issue you may care about.
- Facilitate a meeting between you and federal agency officials to discuss an agency action you may have concerns about.
- Help answer your questions and solve your problems with individual government programs, such as Social Security and Medicaid.
- Help you find government reports and request copies of reports from various government research organizations, such as the Congressional Research Service (CRS).
- Introduce legislation to change an existing federal law or create a new one.
- Cosponsor existing legislation (introduced by someone else) to change a law. (Note, though that House members cannot cosponsor Senate legislation, and vice versa.)
- Vote for or against legislation being considered by the committee he or she serves on.
- Vote for or against legislation being considered on the House or Senate floor.
What a Congressional Office Cannot or Should Not do for You Your member of Congress is elected to represent your interests and to provide his or her constituents with assistance in dealing with other branches of the federal government. However, federal/state jurisdictional issues, ethics rules, work-load limitations, and plain old common sense limits the actions your congressional office can take on your behalf.
- Your congressional office cannot guarantee a government contract, grant, or other government action that favors your business. This is illegal and unethical. Members of Congress generally shy away from any implication that they are using their influence to extract money from a federal agency for a constituent. However, your congressional office can send a general letter of support for an existing grant request, saying something like, “I hope you will give this grant request every consideration.” Such a letter would not say, “Please approve this grant request.”.
- Your congressional office cannot provide legal or tax advice. Your congressional office cannot help you specific legal or tax questions, such as whether you can claim certain deductions, or the detailed legal implications of real estate transactions. These questions should be referred to a lawyer, an accountant, or the IRS. However, it is always appropriate to contact your congressional office seeking changes to a law you think is unfair or unwise.
- Your congressional office cannot do your homework. Your congressional office cannot draft your term paper for you, or send you detailed government reports on a moments notice. However, with about two to three weeks’ notice, your congressional office can send you reports from government research agencies about specific research topics.
- Your member of congress cannot cosponsor state legislation. Often, people will write asking their representative or senator to cosponsor or introduce legislation that is being considered at the State level. Members of Congress do not cosponsor, debate, vote on, or formally consider state legislation. Likewise, a number of things are regulated solely at the state or local level (local utilities and zoning codes for example). While members of the House and Senate may play a role in national legislation to set the framework for how electricity is regulated, or how localities manage their land, they play no formal role in the actual regulation. So, if you ask your member of Congress to get involved in an electricity rate case, or local zoning issue, expect to be referred to the state or local government. Some Members may choose to become involved in local issues due to their personal interest in the welfare of the community. Involvement in local issues by members of Congress is pretty rare, however, and is generally met with some resistance on the part of local officials.
- Your congressional office cannot unilaterally change a federal regulation. Members of Congress do not write the regulations that determine how new and existing federal programs will be implemented. That is the job of the federal agencies. While it is entirely appropriate to let your member of Congress know that you oppose a certain action taking place in a Federal agency, be sure you send a similar letter to the agency, as well as the President. Because the members of Congress does not have direct jurisdiction over the agency rulemaking process, their intercession in these cases is not always effective. Members of Congress can write letters opposing an agency action, but these are not always effective.
- Your congressional office cannot provide detailed assistance on federal grants and loans. Strict ethics laws prohibit congressional offices from unduly influencing the grant-making process. The office can write a letter in support of a particular grant, but, under the ethics guidelines, is prohibited from doing the grant-seeker’s work for them in terms of identifying and applying for grants. It is always appropriate to ask a congressional office for general background information, but you might want to do some research on your own first.
What’s the best way to use e-mail to communicate with elected officials?
Effective E-mail: Whether they are citizen advocates or government relation’s professionals, people are wondering these days whether e-mail is an effective means of communicating with Congress.
The truth is, most Congressional offices do pay attention to e-mails – so long as they follow the same “rules” of content and relevance that apply to more traditional forms of written communication. In terms of content, the e-mail message should be personal, thoughtful, accurate, and polite; the writer must ask for something specific and ask for a response; and, most important, the writer must tell a compelling story.
The effective citizen advocate will also ensure that the Congressional office recognizes the relevance of the correspondence. How? By including their snail-mail address. Elected officials need to know whether or not it is a constituent who is tying to communicate with them. Most offices delete e-mails that are clearly not from residents of the district or that do not indicate where the communicator resides. See www.house.gov/writerep to e-mail House members and www.senate.gov to contact Senators. (Adapted from “Government by the People: How to Communicate with Congress”, by Stephanie Vance)
What should I do when the fate of an issue I care about rests in the hands of an elected official who doesn’t represent me?
Communicate with YOUR Representative: One of the first rules of being an effective advocate is to communicate with the elected officials who either represent you directly, or who represent your employees or members. In our representative democracy, those are the individuals over whom you have the most influence.
But what if another official, such as a Committee chair or member of the leadership, really holds the key to the success or failure of your issue – should you contact them instead of or in addition to your own representatives? If it makes you feel better about the situation, go ahead. However, the truly effective advocate will find ways to turn their own elected officials into advocates for their position with their colleagues.
Think about it – who are the “constituents” of a Committee Chair, or the House or Senate Leadership? Not you. Not me. It’s really other members of the organization, i.e., Representatives and Senators. They are the ones who will wield the most influence over their colleagues. As an effective advocate, you should focus your efforts on turning your representatives into lobbyists for your cause within the institution. Ask them to write a letter, have a meeting, or make a phone call. Working with your own elected official in these situations is a much better and more effective use of your time. (Adapted from “Government by the People: How to Communicate with Congress”, by Stephanie Vance)
Elected officials are always so busy. How can I best gain their attention?
Congressional offices are often inundated with visiting constituents during the months of February and March. It seems like almost every Association on the planet has its annual meeting and lobby day sometime during these 8 weeks. With all the people milling about Capitol Hill, it can be especially difficult during this busy time to ensure that your message rises above the fray.
One way to do so is to do your homework before going in to meet with your member of Congress. Although you may have only five minutes to deliver your message, you can make those minutes count by understanding what your member of Congress feels passionately about.
Put yourself in their shoes – you have meeting after meeting with people who are asking for this appropriation, that letter, or the other bill. You want to help them, but how can you prioritize the requests? Well, you are most likely to work on things that interest you – that are related to the issues that you feel passionately about. The effective advocate will understand what those issues are and will frame their requests in those terms as best he or she can.
Demonstrating that you’ve thought beyond what YOU want to what the Member of Congress is interested in is a sure way to get their attention – and often their support. (Adapted from “Government by the People: How to Communicate with Congress”, by Stephanie Vance)
I feel uncomfortable always asking for something. Is it important that I “make the ask?”
Always Make the Ask: Some people feel uncomfortable asking for something, but take it from me – Congressional offices are used to it and expect it! In fact, the only way to ensure that someone in a Congressional office thinks about you and your issue for longer than the 5 minutes that you spoke to them (or the 5 minutes it took them to read your letter) is to force them to make a decision. And the only way to force them to make a decision is to ask them for something. But it doesn’t always have to be a “big” or controversial request (cosponoring a bill or letter, for example).
Think creatively about other things you can ask your member of Congress to do, like visiting your facility, entering a statement in the Congressional record about your organization’s efforts, making a statement on the floor about a particular award you won, or writing an article for your newsletter. These efforts require that some one in the office think about you and your issues for some part of their day, to help prepare the statement, or make preparation for a meeting.
And here’s a great idea — if you are a member of an association, find out when your National WHATEVER Week occurs. This time period represents a great opportunity to ask your members to recognize your organization’s efforts in a Congressional Record statement or floor speech. (Adapted from “Government by the People: How to Communicate with Congress”, by Stephanie Vance)
How can I come across as reasonable and trustworthy?
Don’t vilify your opponents — In fact, make their case for them: At the very least, you should refrain from labeling those who disagree with you as unenlightened idiots. Try to take it one step further, and tell their side of the story. If you do so, congressional staff are more likely to believe that you have developed your position based on a careful evaluation of the facts. This is not to say that you shouldn’t feel passionately about your position.
However, when you insist that the goal of the individuals on the opposite side of the issue is to drive you out of business, congressional staff may question whether the facts you have presented are colored by your intense feelings on the issue. Fairly presenting the other side’s argument and then explaining why you have the stronger counter-argument is a great way to build trust, especially since the staff person you are dealing with most likely will hear from the other side.
In fact, you may even consider giving the staff person your opponent’s propaganda. If you’re honest about the disagreement up front, that staff person will be more likely to believe you in the long run. It leaves the impression that you have nothing to fear from the staff person knowing the other side of the story. (Adapted from “Government by the People: How to Communicate with Congress”, by Stephanie Vance)
What kind of information should I provide a Congressional office?
Congressional offices receive an astounding amount of unsolicited material. One office I worked in saved all of its unsolicited mail for a week, which included reports, general letters, brochures, and magazines. Not including constituent letters or information we received in meetings, the stack at the end of the week was three-feet high. And yet each staff person had only one or, at most two, file folders to store information.
So what happens to all this stuff? The truth is, most of it is thrown away. How can you make sure your information doesn’t hit the circular file? By making it relevant, short, and easy for the staff person to keep. You should be able to boil the essence of your materials down to one page. You may want to include a few pages of background material with your main message, but do not leave behind reams of paper.
The better thing to do is to let staff know what kind of resources you have available should they need them. If some of the information you would otherwise provide can be accessed on the web, give them a sheet with the web site address and a table of contents. Also, make it easy for them to hold on to your materials — information that’s in a file folder, as opposed to a packet or binder, is far more likely to be stuck directly into a file drawer instead of the wastebasket.
Finally, make sure your materials are relevant to an issue the office must deal with soon, either “hot” legislation or a pressing district issue. If the staff person thinks they may need the document for an upcoming decision, he or she will be more likely to hold on to it. (Adapted from “Government by the People: How to Communicate with Congress”, by Stephanie Vance)
Shouldn’t I always deal with the Washington, DC office?
Don’t ignore the District / State Congressional Office. We all know that in order to be successful, advocates must build positive long-term relationships with their Representatives and Senators. One terrific means of doing so is to engage the district or state office in your issues.
Generally, district or state staff may have slightly more time to delve more into the nuances of your issues and understand better how those issues affect the Congressperson’s constituents. In fact, an effective advocate can turn the district staff into a “lobbyist” for them within the Congressional organization. It’s also important to know that every Representative has a “home-style” and a “DC-style”.
Frankly, many Representatives are much more relaxed and receptive in their home districts. So be sure to meet with the Member and/or their staff in the district office. Or, invite the district staff to an event, a tour of your facility – any activity that will get them involved in your issues and policy concerns. Finally, associations, business groups, or other organizations might want to consider having a “District/State Lobby Day” in addition to the traditional Washington, DC lobby day. This would be a day designated for association members to meet with their federal representatives in their home offices. (Adapted from “Government by the People: How to Communicate with Congress”, by Stephanie Vance)
What’s the best way to follow up with a Congressional office?
I’ve noted in previous editions the importance of asking for something specific from their Congressional offices, such as cosponsoring a bill or writing a letter. The effective advocate will ask for something specific and then follow-up to see what happened. Frankly, some Congressional offices will ignore your first request. It isn’t until you ask again that they realize you are serious.
By following-up, you demonstrate that you really care enough about the issue to keep track of it for a while – and, more importantly, to keep track of what your elected officials are doing about it. Your follow-up should occur two to three weeks after the initial request was placed.
Another important follow-up technique is to send a thank you letter to both the elected official and the staff after a meeting, and be sure to mention how helpful the staff was in the letter you write to the elected official – that will ensure that you will be well received next time you stop by.
Finally, be sure any reporting you do about you interaction with a Congressional office is very diplomatic. Harsh words invariably get back to the office making them much less likely to want to deal with you in the future. (Adapted from “Government by the People: How to Communicate with Congress”, by Stephanie Vance)
Is whining ever effective?
Don’t whine. While this may seem like an obvious communication tip, you’d be surprised at the number of people who think that whining is an effective way to get their message across.
Think about your own life – what happens when your spouse or your kids or your dog tries to get you to do something by whining and threatening? I have never found, “I’m tired of washing the stupid dishes. If you don’t do it this week I’m going to divorce you,” to be an effective way of asking my husband to do the dishes. So please don’t try that same tactic with elected officials. Too many people call their members of Congress and say, “I’m tired of the stupid [EPA, Department of Education, fill in your pet peeve here]. Do something about it or I’ll vote for someone else.” That’s simply not very constructive.
Offering a solution (or a more detailed analysis) makes you a player in the effort to fix the problem. Members of Congress and their staff actually like to deal with people who have constructive, interesting, thoughtful things to say – even if they don’t always agree with them.
The “don’t whine” maxim applies on a larger scale as well. If you aren’t happy with your elected representatives, the options available on the ballot, or the votes that your representatives cast, don’t whine about it until you’ve tried to do something about it – like vote, get involved with campaigns, or communicate your views. Then you can whine all you want! (Adapted from “Government by the People: How to Communicate with Congress”, by Stephanie Vance)
How do I set up a good site visit?
Whether you’re located “beyond the beltway” or just work with people out there in the real world, there are a number of steps you can take to make site visits as effective as possible. Before Sending the Invite – a few steps to make sure your invitation is well received:
Decide Who to Invite: There are a number of factors involved in this decision. Is this a visit for staff? Members? House members? Senators? A combination?
Sketch Out a Plan: One way to make the invitation as enticing as possible is to be specific about what the elected official can hope to gain from the experience. Dealing with Logistics – What do you need to worry about? The short answer is “everything”.
Transportation: How will the elected official get to and from the event? Time: How much time can the member commit to the event? Do not try to cram too much into a short visit. Make sure you hit the highlights.
Food: If this visit is going to occur during a regular mealtime, you should consider setting up a discussion over an informal buffet or box lunch.
Weather: Obviously, you can’t control the weather, but you can be prepared for all possibilities. Make sure you have enough umbrellas, bug spray, or whatever you’ll need to make the visit pleasant for everyone.
Think carefully about who you want from your program to attend the visit, while keeping the total number of people to no more than five.
*Practitioners: Members of Congress enjoy speaking with the people who perform the day-to-day tasks of the program.
*Beneficiaries: “Real people” who benefit from your program and can speak with conviction and enthusiasm about your services will always impress visitors.
*Funders/Supporters: Having those who have invested in your good works or who are leaders in the community present at the visit demonstrates support you enjoy.
Recording The Event & When To Bring In The Media
You want to be sure to capture this auspicious occasion. Some aspects to consider include:
*Photographer: Consider hiring a photographer or have someone on your staff designated to take pictures for use in a newsletter or on a website.
*Note taker: Although you don’t want someone writing down every word out of the member’s mouth, do assign someone the task of preparing a written report after the visit. Consider inviting the media – but only after talking to the Congressional office!
How can I learn about and effectively participate in hearings?
Being Selected to Testify: The staff and Members of the various committees determine who they would like to have as witnesses. Both the majority and the minority are afforded the opportunity to select witnesses, who are chosen based on a variety of factors including: expertise in a particular area; connections to members of the Committee; and, political considerations (i.e., they will strongly make one side or the other’s point). Check out a hearing on CSPAN if you are interested in learning more about how they go. If you are interested in testifying at a particular hearing, start with one of three routes:
(1) calling the committee staff and letting them know of your expertise and interest;
(2) asking your own Representative or Senator to approach the committee on your behalf; or,
(3) letting the Association you work with know that you are interested in acting as a witness, should that Association ever be approached by Committee staff.
Also, some committees accept written statements from the public, which are then included in the hearing record. To learn more about Committees, including the schedule for hearings, check out the House and Senate webpages at www.house.gov and www.senate.gov. Preparing your written testimony: Witnesses are required to submit written testimony to the Committee usually a couple days before testifying. Be sure to meet the deadline for submitting your testimony.
Your written statement should include a succinct explanation of your position, details on how the proposed legislation will help or hurt your industry or interest group, a clear statement of support or opposition, recommendations for improvements or changes to the legislative proposal and background on your own expertise in the area.
If you are a member of an Association, they can usually help you put together a strong statement. In addition, your written statement should include a cover sheet with the name of the committee/subcommittee, the date of the hearing, and the topic of the hearing, along with your name, title, organization and city.
Presenting your oral testimony: Prepare 5 minutes of talking points based upon your written testimony, and practice, practice, practice. Do not read your written statement – the purpose of your oral testimony is to quickly make the strongest points. If you are insightful, and, most important, not boring, in your oral statement, the members and staff are more likely to turn to your written statement for further information.
In addition, be as flexible as possible so that you can avoid repeating what other witnesses have said, or add points that relate to the questions of previous members.
Remember to thank the Committee / Subcommittee members and staff far asking you to participate.
What to Expect: Committee Members rarely attend all the hearings their committees hold, nor do they stay they entire time for hearings they do attend. You will often find that members are distracted during your testimony: they may be speaking with other members and/or staff, reading correspondence, taking notes, or reading the newspaper. Although this may seem very rude, do not take it personally. The fact that the policy maker has even shown up at the hearing demonstrates an interest in the issue. Unfortunately, due to their busy schedules, members often find that they are “multi-tasking” all day long.
Going the Extra Mile: Ask your member of Congress to introduce you to the Committee. This demonstrates a degree of interest on the part of your member that may impress the Committee. Also, you might want to consider asking members who are friendly to your position if they would be willing to ask you some “softball” questions at the hearing.
Following Up: Members may ask you questions that you aren’t able to answer right away. In these cases you may be asked to answer those questions “for the record”, in other words, you will send a written response. Be sure to answer these questions promptly and thoroughly, as they will be included in the record.
Resources: The House Rules committee has posted a variety of CRS reports that deal with a number of Congressional matters, including the hearing process. They are available at: http://www.house.gov/rules/crs_reports.htm
Another good resource is: http://www.naccchildlaw.org/policy/policy_advocacy_guide.htm, which is a comprehensive policy guide from the National Association of Counsel for Children.
For more great advocacy websites, check out our political website lists in the Article Vault.