Plan Before You Go
Meeting with a member of Congress, congressional staff, state legislator or other official representative is a very effective way to convey a message about a specific policy issue. But before you knock on the door unannounced, the following offer some important suggestions and helpful hints to consider when planning an office visit.
1. Plan Your Visit Carefully:
Be clear about what it is you want to achieve; determine in advance which member or committee staff person you need to meet with to achieve your purpose. Clearly detail in your mind what you want to say, and what words will best express your intention.
2. Make an Appointment:
Limit your contact request to the Scheduler. The Congress member has assigned the primary responsibility of coordinating a meeting with staff persons. Virtually 99% of the time, you will be conducting an initial meeting with a staffer for the purpose of convincing them of the legitimacy, urgency, and suitability of your cause or request. The staff person will then make recommendations to the Congress member for a follow-up meeting, proposed intervention, or other appropriate action. If you are a constituent (registered voter) you are more likely to also meet directly with the Congress member.
Clearly, but briefly explain your purpose to request a meeting and who (if anyone) you represent. Saying it is a “personal matter” will also likely cause some resistance, especially if you’re unknown to the staff person. It is easier for congressional staff to arrange a meeting if they know what you wish to discuss and your relationship to the area or interests represented by the Congress member.
3. Be Prompt and Patient:
When it is time to meet with a member or staff person, be punctual and patient. If you are early, take a few minutes to freshen up to present a clean, crisp appearance. It is not uncommon for a legislator or “staffer” to be late, or to have a meeting interrupted, due to a crowded Congressional schedule. If interruptions do occur, be flexible; and when the opportunity presents itself, continue your meeting with staff person to take full advantage of your time and theirs.
4. Be Prepared:
Take the Boy Scout motto to heart and always “Be Prepared!” Whenever possible, bring to the meeting copies of information and materials that clearly support your position. Members of Congress are required to take positions on many different issues. In some instances, a member may lack important details about the pros and cons of a particular matter. It is therefore helpful to share with the member or staffer information and examples that demonstrate clearly the effect or benefits associated with a particular issue or piece of legislation. Leave a well organized copy of your information with the congressional staff to allow further reference and review as necessary.
5. Be Politically Savvy:
Members of Congress are elected to represent the best interests of their district or state. Being politically astute rarely allows the inflexibility of only supporting partisan projects. Wherever possible, demonstrate the connection between what you are requesting and the interests of the member's constituency. If possible, describe how you or your group can be of assistance, but do NOT stress opposition in the meeting. You can be sure they will seriously weigh the benefits and consequences of helping or hindering your cause. Where it is appropriate, remember to ask for a commitment. Remember that the Congress member or legislator does not have to be in your political party to help.
6. Be Proactively Responsive:
Anticipate questions you may be asked or materials you might need to provide additional information. Offer to ask critical questions of your objectives on their behalf in the event the Congress member expresses an interest but may not be sufficiently well acquainted with your issue to know the some important details or consideration. Follow up the meeting with a thank you letter that outlines the different points covered during the meeting, and send along any additional requested information and materials.
7. Presenting Yourself:
A significant part of a decision to support an individual request is based on nonverbal elements in a meeting – handshake, eye contact, body language, posture, listening skills, clothing, grooming and accessories. Don’t overlook the power of a good first impression. People make amazing assumptions about your professional credibility and potential worthiness of your program or request based upon appearances during a first meeting. It's very difficult to overcome a poor first impression, regardless of your knowledge, expertise, or need.
8. Dress to Impress:
Preparation and practice are critical when meeting a member of Congress or staff person. But for even greater opportunity of success to receive their positive intervention or support, also be sure to carefully plan the professional image you want to project. If you come to a meeting dressed professionally, you will feel a sense of confidence and others will sense your self-assurance. Most people interpret your appearance in terms of what you know about the world around you and what attention you give to detail. Elected representatives and support staff will be no different. Remember people naturally respond more favorably to those they feel comfortable with, and reflect their own values, preferences and understandings. The following practices will help cultivate a “best, first impression.”
- Select apparel, fragrances, jewelry, hairstyle, etc. that do not detract from your professional image. Keep the attention focused on the purpose of the visit.
- Make sure hair is clean, neat and professionally styled. Avoid styles that cover more than your forehead or that you have to continually brush back.
- Remove facial and body piercings other than single ear jewelry for women.
- Visible tattoos should be covered to avoid distraction.
- Apparel should be clean and neatly pressed.
- Apparel should fit well and remain in place while sitting and/or walking.
- Choose professional apparel that you like for which you receive positive feedback from people who are knowledgeable about such standards.
- Generally, less is more. Keep your look simple and stylish, and leave the latest fashion trend at home.
If you do not already know it, you may call the U.S. Capital Switchboard to learn the direct telephone number of a member of Congress. The Switchboard is available 24 hours a day, but telephone access to your Congress member is limited to normal business hours. To save on the cost of a long distance telephone call to Washington D.C., you may also contact the state or local district office for the appropriate numbers. To reach the U.S. Capital Switchboard, call:
(202) 224-3121 – (Voice)
(202) 225-3121 – (Voice)
(202) 224-3091 – (TTY)
After you’ve scheduled an appointment, it is a good idea to familiarize yourself with the necessary protocols and restrictions when visiting Congress. Everything you need to know is available from which entrance to use, handicap access, parking and Metro locations, security screening and such is available from the U.S. Capitol Guide Service at http://www.house.gov/house/tour_services.shtml, or you may call (202) 225-6827.