Congressional visit 'How to' kit
Setting up the meeting
Call the District Office. When you call your legislator’s office, ask to speak with the person who handles the legislator’s schedule. Tell the scheduler the date and time you would like to meet with your legislator (be flexible) and the general topics you wish to discuss.
For visits to the local office, seek appointments during congressional recess periods when your Member of Congress returns to your district (check the House schedule at www.house.gov/house/House_Calendar.shtml). Legislators are also frequently home in the district Friday through Monday when Congress is in session.
Let the scheduler know that the meeting should take no longer than one hour. If there is more than one person attending the meeting, let the scheduler know their names and affiliations. (A good delegation is between five to eight persons.) If someone in your group knows the legislator personally or professionally, make sure that the scheduler is aware of the relationship.
Congressional visits in Washington, D.C. Please coordinate your visit with members of our D.C. chapter; let them know you’re planning a visit and ask them for suggestions and useful tips. Remember that most legislative business occurs Tuesday through Thursday and that the closing days of a session are extra busy. When you arrive in Washington, call the Member’s office to confirm your appointment.
Be persistent. The objective of this initial contact is to secure a time and date to meet with your representative. Be persistent yet polite, and make it clear that YOU, the Member’s constituent, are the most important person (s)he will ever listen to. Lots of times it can be hard to get a meeting, but persistence will generally be rewarded with a meeting with your representative.
Meet with somebody. If your Member of Congress can’t meet with your group, don’t feel snubbed. Meet with the staff member who works on the issue that most concerns you. For most issues relating to health care reform, you will want to meet with the domestic policy staffer. Usually that person will be based in Washington, but there will also be an aide in the local office who can meet with you. Try to meet with the highest ranking aide possible in the local office, i.e. the Senior Aide.
Confirm your appointment. After you schedule a meeting, send a confirmation letter that includes a list of those who will attend the meeting.
Preparing for the Meeting
Research your representative. You can use the Congressional Directory: www.congress.org, www.house.gov, www.senate.gov.
Just punch in your ZIP Code and the site provides you with contact information and a web page for your Member of Congress. You will be able to find biographical information, committee and subcommittee assignments, and key issues of concern for your Member. Review your legislator’s voting record and any publicly stated views or opinions. If you are uncertain whether he or she has endorsed the U.S. National Health Insurance Act, H.R. 676, sponsored by Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), visit http://tinyurl.com/3prleu. Check the legislative status of the bill.
Determine your agenda and goals for the meeting. Your group’s members should meet beforehand in order to determine the agenda and to delegate who will raise which agenda items. Have different people cover different issues, but have one person act as a facilitator for the discussion and deliver the bulk of your message. Your main objective is to get your Member to commit to endorsing single-payer legislation (if he or she hasn’t already done so) and to attempt to enlist other legislators to do so.
Bring it all back home. All legislators supposedly want to improve the economy and quality of life in their district/state. It is your job to convince them that single-payer national health insurance will have a beneficial impact on people living in their own congressional district.
Make sure everyone in your group is prepared. Be certain everyone agrees on the central message and what will be asked of the legislator. This way you will avoid a possible internal debate in front of your legislator. Don’t feel that you have to be an expert. Most representatives of Congress are generalists. Be open to counter-arguments, but don’t get stuck on them. If you don’t know the answer to a question, say so. Nothing is worse than being caught in a lie or inaccuracy. Offer to look into the question and get back to the Member (this is also an excellent opportunity to stay in touch).
Prepare an information packet to leave with your legislator. This should include information on your organization including the group`s contact information, as well as a description of your objectives. You should also leave a business card with the receptionist.
Conducting the Meeting
Be on time, listen well, and don’t stay too long. Be on time! Arrive five minutes early. When the meeting begins, introduce yourselves and say what issues and legislation you want to discuss. Stress that you are constituents. However, make sure that all introductions are kept brief, allowing more time for conversation with the representative.
Listen well! You will hear occasional indications of your representative’s actual views, and you should take those opportunities to provide good information.
Don’t stay too long! Try to get closure on the issues you discuss but leave room to continue the discussion at another time.
Build the relationship. If your representative has supported single payer in the past, be sure to thank him/her; if the opposite is true, consider that your visit may prevent more active opposition in the future, and perhaps even result in a positive vote at a later time.
Remember: This meeting shouldn’t be an end in itself. Think of it as the beginning of a relationship with your representative that will allow you to voice your opinion on topics in the future. With this in mind, make sure the relationship you build is a positive one, based on respect. Try not to be hostile: agree to disagree, if necessary. They may not share your viewpoint, but your information does have an impact on how they vote.
Take notes. Make sure someone in your group takes notes on what is said during the meeting. However, don’t use any recording devices. These notes should be circulated to the entire group after the meeting, as well as shared with others.
Ask for specific action. Avoid asking open-ended questions that may result in ceding control of the meeting to the legislator or his/her aide, who may spend a large part of the meeting talking about an unrelated issue. Always ask for specific actions; always get a specific commitment and then follow up. No matter how supportive or unsupportive your legislator is, there is always a next step. Visit the PNHP web site or otherwise consult with PNHP’s national office to find out what specific action(s) should be sought at the time of your meeting.
Ask his or her position. Zero in on the basics: How will s/he vote? Do party leaders have positions on the issue? What is their influence likely to be? Is the office hearing from opponents? If so, what are their arguments and what groups are involved? Does the Member know any other key House Members or Senators who should be contacted to get favorable action on the bill? Is s/he willing to facilitate contact and to write a “Dear colleague” letter?
The Member likely won’t give you an answer on the spot. Tell them you will follow up with an aide in two weeks, and be sure to do so. Offer to answer their questions or to provide additional information.
If the Member says no, be sure to find out why. Ask them what, specifically, they oppose in the bill.
Provide affirmation where possible. Look for areas of agreement and affirm them. Convey your appreciation for positive steps, no matter how small. Try to end the meeting on a positive note.
Debrief/Follow up. After the meeting, find a place where you can relax with your delegation and compare notes on the meeting. This is important because different people might have different interpretations of what happened. Agree as a group on who will do which follow-up tasks. Send a thank-you note after the meeting to the representative via the person who scheduled the meeting, and, if commitments were made during the meeting, repeat your understanding of them. Don’t forget to give a phone number and address where you can be reached. Finally, let PNHP know how the meeting went.
(Above compiled and adapted from multiple lobbying guides by nonprofits.)