Working with Congress: Activist Milestone #11
February 17th, 2010
Get Your Member of Congress to Take Leadership on One of Our Issues
The goal of RESULTS is to create champions in Congress. A champion is not someone who merely votes the right way or supports a bill that we support. A champion is a member of Congress who makes one of our issues a priority and goes to the mat for it. Champions don’t just want to do their part; they want to do more than their part.
First, as activists we learn where our members of Congress stand on each of the issues we care about. Then we work step by step to win them over to our side. If they oppose us on an issue, our job is to make them neutral. If they’re neutral, our job is to make them a supporter. And if they’re a supporter, our job is to turn them into a champion. No matter how long it takes, we keep working step by step until we’ve helped create a champion.
Along the way, we’re guided by a basic understanding of how members of Congress do their jobs. Most members of Congress are informed by the following sources: colleagues, staff members, constituents, the media, experts, and their own experiences. And when they consider taking an action, they’ll ask themselves:
- Am I out here on my own or will I have support from my colleagues?
- What information does my staff have on this issue?
- What will my constituents think?
- Will I get attacked or face serious opposition in the media?
- And will this action make a difference? Is it worth fighting for?
Keeping these considerations in mind will make you a more effective advocate. For instance, RESULTS will ask you to meet face to face with your members of Congress. This is a very powerful way to discuss issues and ask for action. It’s also a great way to develop a relationship with representatives and senators, which is the key to building trust and gaining influence over the long term. For even greater effectiveness, we suggest you recruit other key constituents to work with your group — community leaders, religious leaders, and others whose opinions are particularly important to members of Congress.
You’ll also develop relationships with the staff members working for your representative and senators. Because there are so many issues for members of Congress to follow, they rely a great deal on their staff to know the details. So, building good relationships with congressional staff in Washington and in your member’s local office is critical. Congressional staff are the gatekeepers, and they can become your “inside lobbyist” if you can get them on your side. When you send letters to Congress, or call your senators’ or representative’s aides month in and month out, you’ll be educating them and getting them on your side. RESULTS will train you in the most effective ways to build relationships with congressional staffers.
Members of Congress are also influenced by their colleagues. That’s why you’ll urge your members of Congress to talk to leaders of key congressional committees responsible for our issues. Let me tell you a quick story to illustrate the power of this approach. From 1994 to 2000 Representative Sonny Callahan chaired the committee in the House of Representatives responsible for the foreign aid budget. In one of his last speeches as chairman, he said that more of his colleagues had expressed support for international child health programs than for any other program in the foreign affairs budget, and that he considered it the most important issue that he had ever worked on in Congress. It was RESULTS volunteers around the country who urged their members of Congress to speak to Representative Callahan — volunteers like you made this happen!
Members of Congress are also influenced by the media — both local and national. We’ll teach you on how to generate media, especially print media. You’ll get help with writing letters to the editor and opinion pieces, and meet with your local editorial writers to get your newspaper to take our stance. I’ve seen how media coverage can influence what happens in Washington. For example, volunteers helped generate hundreds of pieces of media in 2008 calling for an expansion of children’s health insurance. Largely because of this media coverage, a bill which we supported was recently signed into law.
Over time, you’ll become a resource for your member of Congress and their staff, offering effective solutions to hunger and poverty. Members of Congress will realize that you care about the issues, that you offer valuable information, and that you are not going away. A senior Senate aide candidly told us, “The only things that we will do (we being Congress) are the things that you make it impossible for us not to do.” This is why powerfully presenting our issues and consistently following up is so effective.
The goal of RESULTS is to motivate our members of Congress to continually take the “next step.” Every member of Congress is in a different position — some are brick walls and some are enthusiastic supporters. But every member of Congress can do more. For some groups, a breakthrough with their member of Congress may be to finally get a face-to-face meeting. For others, it’s getting them to sign an op-ed. Still for others, it’s getting them to initiate a critical piece of legislation. Below are some ideas of “next steps” you can ask your member of Congress to take. This list is in no way complete, but it’s a starting point. Please share your ideas with us so we can add to this list and help to motivate and inspire others.
Possible Next Steps You Can Ask Your Members of Congress to Take
- Offer brief remarks at the International Conference Banquet.
- Convene a town hall meeting to discuss the importance of any of our issues; invite RESULTS members to speak.
- Appear on a district radio or TV program, or on a statewide media call or a press conference to discuss one or more of our issues; invite RESULTS members to speak.
- Speak at an educational forum RESULTS hosts in the district about our issues.
- Write, sign, or co-sign an op-ed on one of our issues (RESULTS can provide a draft for writing points).
- Speak on a RESULTS Conference Call and talk about one of our issues and the importance of RESULTS’ work.
- Meet with the RESULTS D.C. staff to learn more about our issues and what congressional action is needed.
- Talk with the heads of the appropriate committee about one of our issues and let RESULTS know the results.
- Initiate a sign-on letter for one of our issues (e.g., a letter to the Appropriations Committee on funding, a letter to the Foreign Affairs/Relations Committee on a bill).
- Ask a colleague in your state delegation, party or caucus to join you in taking action.
- Hold a hearing or briefing on one of our issues and coordinate with RESULTS D.C. staff.
- Submit our appropriations request in your wish list letter to appropriators.
- Visit development programs in the field to gain first-hand experiences with the challenges and progresses in fighting global poverty, via either:
- a congressionally-sponsored delegation (seek input from RESULTS on programs to visit); or
- a visit organized and hosted by RESULTS Educational Fund.
- Work with RESULTS volunteers to visit effective U.S. programs to gain first-hand experiences with the challenges to and progresses in fighting U.S. poverty.
- Speak personally with candidates for office about our issues and urge them to publicly commit to being a leader on one of our issues.