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Visiting Your Congressperson or Senator
Remember, elected officials and staff are busy. Spend more time preparing for the visit than in the visit itself. Your face time will be limited, so plan ahead to maximize benefits.
Before the Visit
Research the member's voting record. Find out which constituencies and/or industries are important in the member's district. What committees and/or subcommittees does the member sit on? How do they relate to your issue? What power does the member have to give you what you want?
Your CDIC will let the member of Congress know that the issue resonates with the community. You will want to begin building a relationship with your congressional representative and her/his staff so that a trust is formed.
Requesting a Visit
Visit requests should be submitted to the member's scheduler in letter form, usually via fax. The letter should identify the persons requesting the visit. The letter should also specify that you wish to discuss civil liberties in general and accountability specifically. Most likely you will have to follow up several times with the scheduler in order to set a visit. Frequently you will be offered a meeting with an aide. Don't be concerned or feel snubbed: often aides have a lot of influence in the area of policy they cover. Developing good relationships with them can be instrumental to having a long-term effect on policy.
Planning and Practice
Discuss with your CDIC precisely what issue(s) you wish to bring up. Keep in mind that most visits last only up to thirty minutes. Determine what, if any, questions you intend to ask and when you intend to ask them. Keep in mind that once a question is asked you cede control of the meeting to a member or aide, who may spend the rest of your thirty minutes talking about an unrelated issue. Sometimes, not always, it is best to leave questions for after you have spoken what you wished to convey.
Based on your research, determine which arguments you think will best sway the member to your position. Bring printed materials from credible sources (if you have any), the briefer the better, to support each of your positions or to offer information the member is not likely to have. Always ask for something concrete, as in promising to co-sponsor a bill or hold an investigation. It is often a good idea to go into the meeting with a back-up query; ask for something that the member would more readily agree to, especially if you think it is unlikely they will agree to your primary request.
Decide beforehand who is going to say what in the meeting. Practice! It may seem obvious, but it is better to go in prepared. Take turns playing the member or aide and acting out various scenarios.
The Actual Visit
Take notes. You will get valuable information regarding the member's position that should help you in future lobbying efforts. If the member or aide asks you for information you don't have, make a note of it and say that you will get back to them. Be sure to do it. Record any commitments made by the member or their aide. You may well have to remind them of these. If you meet with an aide in the district office, be sure to find out which aide is in charge of your issue in Washington, and indicate that you plan to follow up with that person.
After the Visit
After the meeting, find a place where you can relax with your committee and compare notes on the meeting. This is important, as different people might have different interpretations of the member’s position. Agree as a group on who will do what follow up tasks, i.e. gathering information, writing the thank you letter, etc.
It is customary to write a thank you letter to the person with whom you met, CCing the representative or senator if they were not present. One thank you letter per group is sufficient. This is a good opportunity to review commitments made, and to provide promised information or other materials that support your position. Even if the visit didn’t go as well as you would have liked, stay positive so that you can keep the dialogue open and build toward a fruitful relationship with your elected official and their staff.
Do remember to share the results of your visit with your assigned Regional Manager (RM) and other CDICs in future conference calls.