From the Congressional Management Foundation blog:
Earlier this month, representatives from organizations such as the National Association of Manufacturers, the American Library Association, and the American Heart Association gathered for, “Building and Maintaining a Working Relationship with Congress,” a presentation by the Congressional Management Foundation at the Advocacy Leaders Network, produced by the Beekeeper Group.
Their attendance begs the question, how does one build a working relationship with a person everyone wants to connect with? When a Member of Congress appears on television or spearheads monumental legislation, it is hard to remember that they are regular people whose job relies on interacting with constituents. Despite the ornate buildings and throngs of people walking in and out each day, Congress is only a small village. And, like in any small village, building relationships is vital for success.
- Get to know the “family:” Meet in person with the Member’s staff. Putting a face to an issue is essential. As one congressional staffer stated, “nothing replaces face-to-face interaction.”
- Don’t undervalue the staff’s influence on a Member. Getting to know a District Director or the legislative assistant that works on your issue is imperative for connecting with a Member. Be kind to them (and the rest of the staff) and consider their needs as well as yours. Small details like providing materials in advance, articulating how a decision will impact the district, and arriving on time for a meeting can make or break a budding relationship.
- Find connections in your own network. If you live in the Member’s district, chances are that you have a connection to the office. CMF President Brad Fitch often tells the story of a doctor upset about a new regulation in Congress but unsure of how to voice her concerns. The doctor discovered that her daughter’s friend’s mother went to college with a current Member of Congress, so she called this acquaintance to see if she could put her in touch with the Member’s office. Fast forward a few weeks, and the doctor had a meeting with… Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. Connections don’t have to come through membership of giant constituent organizations. They can be small, everyday interactions that offer an “in” where others don’t.
- Meet the Member half-way: Attend town halls, schedule site visits, and participate in events at which the Member will appear. Repeated interaction not only makes the Member aware of your issue, but also demonstrates your personal investment in forming a relationship with that Member.
Despite the lofty impression given by television appearances or high-stake news coverage, Members of Congress are within an advocate’s reach. They are human, and as such, they thrive on relationships. Following the steps outlined above will push your advocacy goals one step closer to reality.