The people behind the scenes on Capitol Hill
Never turn down a meeting with an aide
We know that face-to-face meetings with lawmakers are the gold-standard for advocacy. But if your member of Congress can’t see you quickly, how can we still have our voices heard?
We may not see them on TV or read their names in the newspaper, but congressional aides are key to making things happen on Capitol Hill. NEVER turn down a meeting with an aide. Even though you might have the impression that they are just an “assistant,” they actually have more sway over your issues than most people think.
I’ve now met more aides than I can count or even remember names for. Some have been joys to work with…others, less so. But I have found all of them – Republicans and Democrats – to be respectful, professional, and courteous when we offered them respect, professionalism, and courtesy ourselves.
An aide’s job is to represent the senator or representative and hear your concerns when the boss is not available (which is most of the time). The role they play in your meeting will depend on their own years of experience in the office, their job description, and how much their boss trusts them.
What roles can aides play in your meeting?
They can be messengers: This is pretty much always the case. If they are taking a scheduled meeting with you, their job is to listen to your concerns and pass them on to the member of Congress with their recommendations.
They can be issue experts: Most aides – especially in DC offices – have a particular legislative portfolio and therefore know more about issues that fall in that scope. I’ve known aides that have covered education issues their whole career and those that specialize in foreign affairs. Aides in the local district offices tend to be more “jacks of all trades” because the local offices are smaller, but I even know one local aide who is the point person for all her boss’ activities in opposing sex trafficking within U.S. borders…that’s pretty specific! Anyway, you want to make sure that you request the correct aide for your issue and be aware you might be talking to someone with deep knowledge of your topic. (Hint: you can look up which congressional staff cover which issues here.)
They can be gatekeepers: They have quite a bit of influence with the scheduler in deciding who gets face time with the member of Congress or not. Sometimes this depends on your issue, but I really do think it has a lot to do with whether you present yourself as a rational human being or not. If you show up yelling curse words or something else meant to shame the office, you probably just blew your chance to have a productive back-and-forth conversation with your senator.
They can be your champion: Here’s a secret….aides don’t always agree with their bosses on everything! I once worked for two years talking to a polite, but disinterested aide trying to get a certain Congressman to take action on global poverty. Then, one day, that aide wasn’t available and we ended up talking to his press secretary. I could have chosen to be offended and turn down the meeting, but I went in with my group and pitched our bill anyway. It turns out this aide was a young woman from a family who had adopted a family from Somalia. She showed us pictures of her Somalian siblings standing up at her wedding. She knew better than we did what the devastating affects of extreme poverty were to individuals. So, even though she wasn’t the official issue expert, she presented our message to her boss and convinced him not only to sign the bill, but to publish an opinion piece in our local newspaper about it…one that I have no doubt that she drafted for him. And next time we asked for a face-to-face meeting? We got it.
They can be decision makers: Three times I have been surprised that I was sitting with aides who were actually empowered to grant my request WITHOUT consulting the member of Congress first. That’s enough to make me treat everyone that way just in case! Aides who can do this are usually 1) Issue experts who know the member’s position so well that they can anticipate which bills their boss will want to sign 2) Chiefs of Staff who take your meeting because they are interested in your issue or happen to be filling in for more junior aides for whatever reason.
They are ALWAYS human: They are always human beings worthy of your respect. Yes, they are paid by our taxes, but they’re still people just doing their jobs. It is always worth taking the time to ask her what brought her to this line of work or ask how his day is going. They are often also constituents or former residents of your state, so it rarely takes very much small talk to find something you have in common. They are never deserving of unsolicited curse words and personal attacks. They don’t have to be your best friend, but cultivating a friendly relationship with an aide might be the best thing you can do for your cause.
So, to recap…
What an aide can be: Messenger, Issue expert, Gatekeeper, Your Champion, Decision Maker, Human
What an aide isn’t: Your Punching Bag
Do you have a story about how working with an aide created a positive outcome with your member of Congress?
Cynthia Changyit Levin is a RESULTS Grassroots board member and long-time RESULTS advocate.