Working with Congress: Activist Milestone #8
April 1st, 2010
Establish Regular Conference Call or Video Meetings with an Aide or Member of Congress
In the process of moving members of Congress (MoCs) toward being champions for our cause and deepening the relationship with MoCs and their staff, RESULTS partners may find that they have formed a strong enough working relationship with an office to merit having regular meetings with these offices (generally with specific aides). These meetings could advance your work on a particular campaign, provide a vehicle for ongoing information-share on the hot topics of the moment, and help establish a powerful partnership with the MoC and their staff for advancing RESULTS goals.
Here are some steps you can take to facilitate having regular meetings with your MoC’s staff:
- Assess where your member of Congress is on our Champion Scale. This assessment will help you get a sense of how you might get the most receptive response from the congressional office as you broach the subject of a regular meeting.
- Bring up the subject of having regular meetings as a partnership for moving mutual goals forward. Describe how your meeting would be a sharing of information and would involve multiple RESULTS partners from around the district or state. Consider how the strategic involvements and passions of the MoC and of their staff might be served through the specific campaigns and momentum-building that RESULTS volunteers can offer. Keep in mind that the MoC/staff will invest the time in these meetings only when it advances their own perceived self-interest.
- Establish a regular pattern for meetings. Set a specific time each month or quarterly to have your meeting (whatever frequency your group and the aide(s) agree to). We know that congressional offices are incredibly busy, and you may experience resistance to the idea simply be because the aide doesn’t feel he/she can reliably make a standing commitment. If this is the case, be reassuring about your flexibility. Suggest that you tentatively schedule each meeting a month out, reconfirming a week prior and then a day prior, just to make sure circumstances haven’t changed.
- Be ready to describe the community outreach and coalition-building you have done around the particular issue you want to discuss. Not only will this help prove that there is a constituency interested in the topic and demonstrate how robust the grassroots presence could be on the call(s), but it could also show that there is a body of people back in the district/state ready to support the legislator’s work on the issue.
- Underline the support of our legislative staff to provide on-going talking points, draft Dear Colleague letters, draft legislative language, and other relevant research that would be valuable to the congressional office.
Once you have begun the pattern of meeting, be sure to prepare. Three weeks before each meeting, begin preparing your agenda. Consider getting in touch with the appropriate staff member(s) to make sure your requests are well-targeted to your specific legislator. Remember, you can be bold in your requests, asking them to go beyond where they are on the Champion Scale. For more help in shaping your agenda, consult Working with Congress Activist Milestone #7, Meet Face-to-Face with Your Member of Congress.
Consider this story from California partners who successfully set up on-going meetings with a Senate aide:
We actually started laying the groundwork for having these calls during the face-to-face meetings with our senator’s foreign affairs aide during the 2007 RESULTS International Conference in Washington DC. At the end of a productive meeting, we told the aide that it was clear that we were starting to create a powerful partnership to advance issues we were all committed to. Over the next year, one of our RESULTS group members attempted without success to engage the aide in further discussions. Then again at the end of the meeting during the 2008 International Conference, we again suggested it might be useful to have monthly conference calls that would include activists from RESULTS groups around the state. When we worked out the prerequisite scheduling flexibility the aide desired, he agreed to an initial call the following month.
Since then, we have had regular conference calls with our senator’s aides to discuss the issues on our agenda. These meetings have not only been informative and empowering, they have provided us with unanticipated opportunities to deepen our relationship with the staff from that office.
On one call, we asked the aide to discuss building momentum in the Senate for foreign assistance reform with an aide in another MoC’s office. Because RESULTS partners are trained to be persistent, we raised the issue again in subsequent monthly calls. When the aide repeatedly said that he had no new information despite his having agreed to initiate the conversation, we were left to wonder if a conversation had even been initiated. Finally, when we asked for a third straight month about the conversation, the aide became irritated and said that he would only talk to the other staffer when foreign aid reform had gained some momentum in Congress and told us to stop pressing the issue. His obvious frustration left everyone uncomfortable and uncertain what to say.
After the call, we knew that by continuing to ask about the conversation, we would be putting the relationship at risk, and that perhaps we’d already pushed too hard. But what happened next was a testament to the integrity of the aide and to the effectiveness of our training from the RESULTS staff. Our team leader wrote the aide a few days later to apologize for any misunderstanding and to ask for a one-on-one discussion. When they spoke, the aide took the time to educate our team leader on what had happened. He said that unless foreign aid reform was already underway, his bringing it up might inadvertently signal that his boss was moving independently of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which was something he needed to avoid at all costs.
After this introduction to the world of Washington politics and protocol, the team leader thanked him for explaining the situation and for giving him a new perspective on the Washington world. The team leader assured the aide that he could count on the RESULTS partners to push him on actions, but that the aide should feel free to say no and to educate us when appropriate. As a result, our group now has a more robust working partnership with this aide and his colleagues. Without this breakdown and the honest conversation these calls have created, this deeper relationship would not have happened.
If you are having trouble getting the congressional office to agree to an on-going meeting pattern, don’t be discouraged. This is an unusual request to offer your member of Congress, which is what makes it so exciting. Ask for clear feedback on why the idea doesn’t work for the office, make adjustments as you can, and then be courageous in revisiting the idea a few months down the road.