Citizen lobbying tips, or “How to Get Your Congressman to Wake Up and Pay Attention!”

Long time MCCRC supporter Bill Day has just shared a great list of citizen lobbying tips on his blog at daylawpractice.com, titled “How to Get Your Congressman to Wake Up and Pay Attention!”

Bill’s experience and expertise comes both from his profession, from joining both MCCRC and NELA (National Employment Lawyers Association) in lobby visits, from his experience as a Congressional intern, and from conversations with his father, a former lobbyist.  With his permission, we’ll just copy and paste his advice:

  • If you find yoU.S. Capitolurself in Washington, visit your Congressman’s office on Capitol Hill and meet with the Chief of Staff and possibly even the Member. Particularly if you are a constituent from out of town, I guarantee that a staff member will be happy to speak with you. According to my father, 10 minutes with the Washington staff is worth 20 with the member.
  • Don’t neglect your state senators and delegates. State law can’t conflict with federal law, but, for example, state civil rights laws often have a much farther reach, better remedies, and more access to the courts than federal law. Also your state representatives may have better access to the Congressman than you; my newly elected Congressman spent years as a state senator.
  • Attend events at which your Member or state legislator is appearing. You would be surprised by the fact that they are not always well attended, and you never know when you might be able to get in a word or two.
  • Donate to the national NAACP and ACLU, but don’t forget that they have local chapters across the country which are always hungry for volunteers.
  • Coalitions of local organizations are very powerful. I once had an opportunity to meet for an hour with Congressman Chris Van Hollen’s staff and for about 20 minutes with the Congressman himself to discuss national security issues and surveillance as part of the Montgomery County Civil Rights Coalition in his district, which includes representatives from a number of state and local organizations, including the ACLU. All politics are local.
  • Don’t neglect organizations who might have a different point of view on other issues. My father used to say that the Congressman had to think very hard when he walked in the door as the company lobbyist accompanied by the union lobbyist when both had the same position. Most of us do not have the clout of a Fortune 100 company and the United Auto Workers, but don’t neglect people like the Chamber of Commerce and local congregations. Maybe they won’t respond, but maybe they will.
  • According to Jack Sinclair, my former Congressman’s AA, a contribution, no matter how small, gets you on the Member’s list of contributors. Members notice if you are both a contributor and a constituent. It does not hurt to volunteer on the campaign either.
  • If you can find a substantial donor or even better, a fundraiser, a handwritten note approving an enclosed news article can have a real impact.
  • If you call your Congressman, don’t just leave a comment with the receptionist, tell them that you have a question you would like to ask the relevant staff member.

Other good citizen lobbying advice:

  • Advice from a Citizen Lobbyist :Guidelines, Rules of Thumb, and Suggestions for Lobbying in the Oregon Legislature (Peter Chabarek, shared with the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, 10/28/15):

    …Consider everyone you encounter in the legislature as either an ALLY or a POTENTIAL ALLY. The issue of civil liberties cuts right across party lines, so make no assumptions about who you think will help or hurt the movement. Assume that anyone who doesn’t yet agree with defending the Bill of Rights simply needs to be educated more. That’s our job. And legislators’ aides can be very important allies, even if they take the opposing view, so work on everyone.

    Be RESPECTFUL BUT ASSERTIVE when dealing with legislators and their staff….

  • A former congressional staffer explains how to best stand up to Trump through Congress (Vox, 11/15/16). In a series of tweets, former staffer Emily Ellsworth explained what works best *short* of seeing your Congressman in person:

    …First, tweeting or writing on Facebook is largely ineffective. I never looked at those comments except to remove the harassing ones.
    Second, writing a letter to the district office (state) is better than sending an email or writing a letter to DC.
    But, the most effective thing is to actually call them on the phone. At their district (state) office.

    She explains that emails were handled by computer algorithm, which letters could not be — and that mass phone call campaigns were tactics guaranteed to get the Congressperson’s attention because they sure get the staff’s attention.

I’ll just add that you may not think it’s useful to lobby some of your representatives because you figure they are already on your side.  Not so: you’re helping them stay in touch and  know what matters to their constituency — you — day in, day out.  You can also learn useful background about the substance and politics of a given issue from a sympathetic staffer or legislator.

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