You’ve made your phone calls. You’ve rallied. You’ve begged for town halls. What else can you do?
Your mission, should you choose to accept it: Make your legislators picture your face when they think about your issue.
I’m here to walk you through meeting effectively with your representatives to the federal or state government. I acknowledge that doing this involves having both the time and privilege to make these meetings. It may not be possible for everyone. If it is within your power, it can be an effective tool.
I spent ten years taking teens with epilepsy and their families to meet their state-level and federal legislators. Here’s what I learned.
1) Identify one or two specific concerns. I know it’s hard to pick just one or two at a time like this. You can always go back with another issue. For maximum impact, pick something that directly affects you, a member of your family, or a member of your community. If it’s possible, bring that person with you.
If you’re aware of specific legislation that connects with your issue, take note of it. It’s okay to have a general concern too, like protecting the ACA, or protecting immigrants in your community. Investigate if they have a stated position, so you know whether you’re there to convince or reinforce.
2) Make sure you are registered to vote. Legislators want to hear from voting constituents. They aren’t obligated to meet with anyone else. That said, you can go with an organized group, your family, or as an individual. You generally want to visit only those who represent you, though if you and a friend are represented by two different people, it’s fine to attend each other’s meetings to give support.
3) Make an appointment. Some legislators have a website form for appointment requests. Others prefer calls or emails. If you’re in DC or your state capitol for a visit, conference, or march, schedule an appointment with your legislators if you can! Otherwise, most have regional offices as well. Your state reps will likely have offices both in the state capitol and in their district.
I’m a constituent living in your (state/district). I would love to talk to you) about ________. I’ll be in (D.C./state capitol/local city) on (date) and would love to meet with someone from your office.
If one of your legislators doesn’t respond to requests for meetings, but you’re going to be in the area to meet the others, it doesn’t hurt to pop your head into their office. You can ask if someone is available to meet with you, since you’re there. If not, you can leave materials behind anyway. Again, make sure you’ve identified yourself as a voting constituent. You can also snap a selfie with their name plaque to post when they make false claims about paid protestors.
You can arrange meetings with everyone on the same day. Try to make enough time for travel between appointments. In D.C., for example, there’s about a fifteen minute walk between the House and Senate office buildings. If you can, make your appointments with your Senators in a cluster and your appointments with Reps in a separate cluster.
Leave time to get into the buildings. You have to pass through metal detectors, and the lines sometimes back up. I’ve only done this in Annapolis and D.C., so I can’t speak to specifics of other states, but House and Senate offices are often in different buildings. In D.C., once you’re in one Senate or House office building, there are underground tunnels you can use to travel between them so you don’t have to go through multiple security checks on each side.
4) What to Prepare. Tell a personal story connected to the concern you want to highlight. Talk about what your city’s air or water was like before regulations. Talk about your spouse’s immigration struggle or the refugee family your church sponsored. The pre-existing condition that previously made you uninsurable. Bring your medical bills. Be specific.
Practice on somebody. Don’t memorize or over-rehearse, but know the points you want to hit. You can bring a cheat sheet, but don’t read it verbatim. Decide which details are important to the story you’re telling and which are extraneous.
If you’re bringing a kid, get them involved too. When we brought teenagers with epilepsy to speak with their legislators, they talked about how seizures affected them in school. The parent would then interject with details from their perspective and specific requests.
5) What to Wear. Wear something business-y or business casual. Wear comfortable shoes. You may end up doing a lot of walking.
You’ll have to go through metal detectors, so if there’s stuff that’ll slow you down, leave it behind.
Bring: ID (you shouldn’t need it, but just in case); business card (optional); anything else you want to leave for your rep to remind them of your visit.
6) The Meeting. Arrive 5-10 minutes early. If you’re earlier than that, wait in the hall before stepping inside. Many offices have small waiting areas that can fill up fast.
Introduce yourself to the receptionist. Say the time of your appointment and who you’re meeting. They may ask you to sign in. There may be professional lobbyists or other families waiting as well.
Even if your appointment is supposed to be with your member of Congress, you may wind up speaking with an aide. Or your appointment may be with an aide to begin with. Don’t be disappointed! This is okay, and possibly even preferable. The aides are often the ones who shape the legislation. They are generally issue-specific and knowledgeable.
If you’re meeting with your actual member of Congress, know they may get called away for a vote at any time. There are clocks that flash and bells that ring every once in a while, usually when a vote is being called.
Your meeting may be in the member’s office. That’ll be the poshest room in the place. It may be in a conference or committee room. It may also be in the lobby, or even in the hallway outside the office. Don’t be offended by any of these. The offices tend to be crowded warrens of shared desk space. The important thing is that they are there and listening. They should be writing down what you say.
Make your connection with the district, so they understand you are a voting constituent. If they are doing well by you, let them know. Tell your story. If you have something specific to ask (see advanced version below), follow up your story with that request.
They may try to explain why their boss can or can’t support your cause. They’ll usually say, “As you know, the Senator believes…” Depending on if they agree with your cause or not, they may try to pivot a bit. Your job is to make sure you’ve gotten to tell your story, and see if you can get a commitment on your issue.
Things they may ask: Is there legislation connected? Who are the sponsors? What is the cost associated with the bill? I tell you how to find that in Meetings 201 below, but you can always say “I’ll get back to you.”
If you don’t know an answer to a question, tell them you can get back to them with an answer. Don’t make up answers, even if you’re a writer and really good at making things up. Saying you’ll send it is a great excuse for follow-up conversation!
You’ll have 10-20 minutes—that’s why telling your story concisely is key.
If you want, write up something you can leave with them. Don’t read off of it verbatim, but you can refer to it for specifics. It is often called an “ask” since they assume you’re following your story with a request.
Things you could put on it: info on your specific bill or concern; a picture of your affected family member; your contact info for follow-up.
If there’s an event in your community you’d like to see them represented at, tell them about that too.
Take notes if you want.
Before you leave, ask for their business card. Ask to take a picture with them, or you can snap your own with the name plaque outside their office. Have you seen the legislators claiming people at town halls are outside agitators rather than constituents? Your picture at their office may come in handy.
7) Follow-Up. When you get home, write a thank you email. Restate your message, and tell them again they’re welcome to use you as a resource.
Is there specific legislation you want to address? If you know a bill number, you can look it up at Congress.gov or your state legislature’s website.
House bills start with HB (House Bill) or HR (House Resolution), Senate bills start with SB (Senate Bill) or SR (Senate Resolution). Congress.gov also tells you who introduced the bill, who has co-sponsored, and if there is already a companion bill in the other legislative body. It says exactly where a bill is in the process of becoming legislation. Most states have similar websites.
The title is usually somewhat self-explanatory. Say, HB __, “Resolution to Ban Space Unicorns.” The website will say if it is still waiting for a vote.
If you click on “related bills” you can see that an identical bill has been introduced in the Senate, SB_. If you click on SB__’s page, you can see who all the co-sponsors are.
Under “actions” you can see it has been read and referred to the Committee on Finance. If your Senator is on that committee, it’s worth noting. If they’re not, you can still talk to them about it. If they are a committee member, they can potentially help move it forward or hold it back. If not, they still will have a role if it gets to the floor.
It also says whether a cost has been assigned. There’s a government office designed to estimate the cost of implementing bills. If a bill is expensive, room has to be found for it in the budget, which is probably impossible right now. If you want something passed that has no cost, that’s useful information. These are all good things to know before your meeting, but not necessary. You can always say you’ll find out and get back to them.
You can also create a Congress.gov account to get updates on specific legislation.
Take the Metro. Parking sucks. Leave enough time to locate the building and pass security. For Senate office buildings, get off at Union Station. For the House side, go to Capitol South.
All the buildings on each side are connected with tunnels underneath. There are elevators in each building, though some are reserved for members of Congress.
If you’re making multiple meetings, know that there are cafeterias in the basements of several of the buildings. They’re reasonably priced and pretty decent food. Some of them have designated staff-only hours.
There are three Senate office buildings: Hart (SH), Dirksen (SD), and Russell (SR). Senate office numbers are three digits. The first digit is the floor. Hart has an awesome Calder sculpture in its atrium.
There are three House office buildings:
- Cannon—CHOB (3 digits, 1st digit is the floor)
- Longworth—LHOB (4 digits, 2nd digit = floor)
- Rayburn—RHOB (4 digits, 2nd digit = floor)
The buildings and offices are theoretically wheelchair-accessible, and I’ve never encountered a broken elevator.
I can’t help you with that info for state office buildings, but feel free to help each other in comments for the online version of this essay.
What if my rep won’t meet with me?
I’m seeing reports that some reps are refusing to meet with constituents. If you run across that, share it on social media. Write a letter to your local paper stating it.
I’d love to hear how your meetings went. Feel to let me know in the comments for the online version of this essay, or on Twitter!
© 2017 by Sarah Pinsker