Working on Capitol Hill in the office of my hometown Member of Congress was an incredible honor that gave me the opportunity to meet people from all over the country, hear their stories, and share ideas about government and public policy. We covered everything under the sun, but most meetings focused on how Congress can be helpful to local efforts to grow the economy, keep people safe, or improve the quality of life.
I learned about lumber yards, apple orchards, hospitals, micro-distilleries, cement plants, historic sites, and a whole host of businesses and institutions. I learned about Lyme disease, opioid addiction, rural broadband, standardized testing, flood control, and invasive species, among many other issues facing American communities.
Most importantly, I learned how ordinary people have a real impact on the legislative process. They do that by connecting with elected officials on a personal level, talking about who they are and where they come from, detailing their experiences with a particular issues and seeking common ground with the member and their staff.
Meeting participants need to make their pitch by including as much district- or state-specific information as possible. Who is affected by Issue X and where do they live? How many people are experiencing this problem? What is it costing them? This is vital information to have on hand, especially if you’re not a constituent.
Here are a few more suggestions for having a quality meeting:
- Don’t show up too early. The offices aren’t big enough to accommodate a lot of people waiting for the next meeting.
- Research the district of the Member you’re meeting with. Read about the key cities and towns, economic activity, and local history. Figure out what you have in common with people from that region.
- Come up with a headline and lead for your presentation and keep your remarks brief and easy to understand.
- Don’t be afraid to state the obvious. The things you’re talking about may seem routine to you, but it may be brand new to others.
- Appeal to the heart as well as the mind. Find a compelling personal narrative to share, even if the protagonist is not a constituent.
- Write a one-pager with key bullet points, including data and a photo when possible, and print several copies to leave behind.
- Practice your key messages so that you’re able to deliver those bullet points without having to read from a script.
- Let your colleagues know about your plans if this meeting is work-related. Consult with the Congressional relations and communications teams at your office before heading to the Hill.
- Stay in touch. Send a thank-you note, post a photo of the meeting on social media, and contact the staff to offer more information. Ask for follow-up meetings down the road.
It may seem obvious, but I think it’s important to emphasize that Members of Congress and their staffs really want to know what’s important to the people who elect them and pay their salaries. The general public should not hesitate to contact their representatives. Emails, letters, and phone calls to our representatives are fine, and they often get a response, but in-person meetings are the best way to express your views.
You don’t have to be an expert on a certain topic, be connected to movers and shakers, or even be a political person. It’s as easy as picking up the phone, calling the Washington office of your Member of Congress or the one you want to meet, and asking for the name and email address of the scheduler. Then email your request. The scheduler might direct you to a staffer, but meeting that person is still valuable. And in many cases, you may run into the Member while you’re in their office or the hall. We are blessed to live in a country where anybody can walk off the street and have a conversation with Eleanor Holmes Norton, Jeb Hensarling, or Jackie Speier. Let’s celebrate that democratic spirit by visiting the Hill!
Matt Sheehey was the press secretary for Congressman Chris Gibson, who represented the 19th District of New York.