I really apologize for the huge gap of time between Unit 7 and Unit 8. My own legislative visits got in my way, and then I’ve just had one little thing after another distracting me this spring. But I think I am finally getting back on track. I also over-thunk it. The more I thought about Units 8-12, the more difficult and detailed I was making it for myself. Hopefully this helps and not overwhelms.
This unit will discuss the thought process and planning for a legislative visit. I am dividing up legislative visits into different sections. This is just the first one.
- Planning a legislative visit
- Visit day, what to expect
- Follow up from visit
First, this seems to be the task that scares people the most. “Visit my Congressman?!? I could never do that like you do!”
I’m here to tell you that “yes, you can.” It’s not hard once you plan it out a bit and more importantly know what to expect.
First, understand that your legislator that you are going to visit, and his/her staff….this is their JOB! They were elected to represent the people, their constituents. I know it doesn’t always feel that way, but it is. They want and expect their constituents to visit them and share with them what their concerns are. Yes, really. Even if it feels like you are talking to a wall and making no progress, you keep going. They need to know that you are a voting constituent and that you have concerns. So, let’s get started.
Types of Legislative Visits
There are several types of legislative visits. I am mostly going to describe the formal, scheduled visit and give tips on how to prepare. For the other types of visits, either little preparation is necessary, or you have partnered with a larger group that will let you know what to expect.
- March or Rally
- Planned large group visit, and the sponsoring organization does much of the planning and organizing
- The drive-by or stop-in to the office, unscheduled
- Formal, scheduled visit, small group or individual
March or Rally
This will likely be a larger group with a sponsoring organization. They will likely schedule everything, including any legislative meetings. In previous units I discussed partnering with charities and organizations that share your same interests, so if you have done this and you have signed up for emails and newsletters, you will know when these are occurring.
Planned large group visits
This is similar to what I described above. Again, follow groups that share your same interests, be active with those groups and you will get invited and be informed about their planned visits.
The drive-by or stop-in
Sometimes you get an email or see it on Facebook….they are voting on XYZ TODAY! Yikes! So when this happens, if it’s possible for you to stop by your district office, do it! Just a quick stop in, tell the staffer what you want them to vote yes/no on, and they likely will take your name and address. That’s it! Be polite, be professional and follow up with an email or phone call.
why in-person legislative visits matter
I can’t tell you enough ways or enough times of how important this is. We have become so lazy as a society when it comes to our politics and the legislation that affects us. In person visits demonstrate to your legislator that you care enough about this issue that you took time out of your schedule to go see them and tell them. That is huge. Also, all legislators’ offices receive a ton of email, phone calls and tweets. But the percentage of in-person visits is far less, and has an impact. Legislators and their staff need to be able to see the people and the families who they are affecting. It’s much easier to avoid an uncomfortable situation on email than it is when that person is sitting in front of you. If my legislators are not going to make public education a priority, then at the very least I’m going to force them to look at me and my kids while they are explaining the reasons why not.
There are several different types of visits to legislators:
- formal, scheduled, in-person visit at either your state capitol or Washington, DC
- visiting state and federal legislators in their regional/district offices, formal and scheduled
- rally or event at a legislator’s office or the capitol, and you can attach scheduled visits on to it
- quick drive-by or stop-in at a local office, just to deliver a note or stop by and talk to staff, unscheduled
- formal meeting called (usually by an interest group) to meet with legislators, away from their offices, scheduled
The type of meeting that you are going to have will determine the amount of planning. Also, the status of your issue and pending legislation will help determine the type of visit. For example, my state legislature is debating some important issues in education, today in Harrisburg. It doesn’t make sense for me to hop on a train and go, because my legislators will be in session. So, an impromptu phone call or stopping by the regional office to say “Hey, I know that they are discussing X, Y and Z today, I just wanted him to know that I want…..” and ask them to pass it along to the Legislator. They will, that is their job. Legislators hire staffers for this specific purpose–gathering information and opinions from constituents. Several years ago when PA Act 62 was being voted upon, I did a quick stop with Kevin into State Senator Pileggi’s office to voice my opinion. A few weeks later I got a letter in the mail from him, so he did get the message.
How do you decide which to do or how to plan a trip?
Choose your issue and ask item
Back in the earlier units, we discussed finding your passion and then educating yourself on the legislation that surrounds that issue. The status of legislation and your issue determines the type of visit you want to do. When I was in Washington, DC, my main ask was about ESEA. I had all my thoughts and concerns about ESEA written down on a cheat sheet for me, and when I scheduled my appointment, I asked to be hooked up with an education staffer. My friend who came with me had health issues to discuss, so we asked for a health staffer as well. Environment, budget, appropriations, military, commerce….make sure you are scheduled to see the correct staffer!
So, let’s say there is a big deal item, like ESEA on the table, and the Senate is voting on it? What can you do? Well, very likely there will be Teachers’ Unions and other organized groups rallying in Washington on the day of the vote. If you can get there and want to go, go! But for an imminent vote, sometimes an email, phone call, local office visit and tweet has to do. And you are still doing well if you do that! Don’t shortchange yourself if a visit cannot happen.
You want to have a direct ask. I knew that ESEA was going to be a hot topic this spring and I knew that I very likely had time to schedule a visit prior to it being voted on. (It just came out of HELP committee this week, in fact, so…still not voted on!) I knew that the specifics of ESEA were still being debated in committee, so I wanted to voice my concerns, which were funding portability, charter school reforms and restraints & seclusion.
Remember, it’s not very useful for them, if I go in and say “I want education to be better.” That says nothing. Have specific legislation or reforms or funding appropriations that you would like to see them do.
have a story and pitch prepared
Treat this like a public speaking engagement, though you likely will be with only 1-4 other people (unless you go in a group). Make it personal. Have your story ready and rehearsed. Why is this important to you? How has this affected you and your family? What change do you need, do you want to see? What will happen to your family if this does not change? You want to make the case for the greater good, but also have a personal connection.
For a quick stop in at a local office, I would plan on just a few sentences, since it is not scheduled. For scheduled visits, you generally only get 15-30 minutes. The more “big time” a legislator is, the less likely you are to meet with the person directly. Do not be offended by this, this is why they hire staffers. When I go with a larger non-profit, I may get to see actual Senators and Congressman, but little ole’ me by myself, no. Not yet, anyway! But after several visits with some offices, I am now getting scheduled with Chiefs of Staff, which is promising.
I always like to start my visit with some commonalities, particularly if my legislator is one who I never agree with. Find something, anything…you can usually find at least a committee or something that they have done that you can thank them for. I don’t agree with just about anything that my Congressman does, however he is on the House Rare Disease Caucus, so that is at least something I can say thank you for.
I mentioned above that some offices now schedule me with their Chiefs of Staff. I have other relationships with other local offices, that they now email ME when they want an opinion or they want me to share something on my blog. It’s not all one-sided anymore. You have to work on building relationships. Remember, this isn’t about a once & done, call someone about a vote, kinda thing. This is to be a continued, long sustained effort to lobby for a cause. And that includes building relationships. When you meet people, introduce yourself and tell them where you are from. If this is an unscheduled visit, tell them a little bit about yourself and why you are stopping by, and then do the ask. If you recognize a face in future visits, you can say “if you remember, I was in here a few months ago about the XYZ legislation, today I’m visiting because….” If you do this long term, you will talk to far more staffers than you ever will the actual politicians, so relationships are important.
doing the actual planning for the visit
Now that you’ve got a rough idea in your head, it’s time to plan the actual visit. For the most part, I will not be discussing the local stop-ins, since those don’t require much planning.
- Idea & ask formulated in head
- look at your personal calendar and look at the legislature calendar, determine where legislator will be when you want to schedule visit
- call the legislator’s office and ask “Hi, I am Sue Smith, one of Senator So-and-so’s constituents from Podunk, USA. I would like to come in to the office and speak with someone about XYZ legislation. Is there a time during the second week of June that I can come in?” You absolutely can ask for a time by saying something like “Ok, great, June 15 at 2:00? Is that correct? Ok, and would you say 15-20 minutes or so? Great, thanks.”
- If you are trying to schedule for regional office, call that office. Call the Capitol office if that is where you plan to go.
- Make your travel arrangements if necessary.
- Look at maps. Ease any travel anxieties you may have by figuring out ahead of time where to park, how much it costs and all those other little details that can stress you out.
- Plan your talk and your story according to how much time they told you that you would have.
- Continue to read up on the progress of your legislation.
Unit 9 will discuss the actual visit, how to finalize the details (what to wear?? what to bring??) and then Unit 10 will discuss following up.