How to Effectively Lobby Your Congressperson
November 15, 2016
It’s been almost a week since the election, and maybe you’re ready to throw off the sackcloth and ashes and get to work. Combining the anger, bargaining, and depression stages of grief can lead to powerful actions, and now is the time to channel that energy into specific activism that will serve as a barrier between you and whatever legislation and policies come down in the next four years.
I worked for Congressman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and Congressman Chris Stewart (R-Utah) from 2009 to 2014 as a state office-staffer. My full-time job was to listen to constituents and make sure their voices were heard by their elected officials. After nearly six years on the job, I got a good idea of what types of activism worked and what didn’t. I learned that a coordinated effort with a large group of people goes a long way toward influencing change. Here’s how to make that happen.
Recognize how congressional representatives and their staffs work
Members of the House of Representatives have small budgets and a small staff of a dozen or so people and a handful of interns. Senators have much larger budgets and staff, but they also represent a larger constituency, meaning they run into similar problems with trying to listen to everyone in their state.
Because elected officials represent hundreds of thousands and even millions of people, they rely on a few systems to try to prioritize and respond to constituent correspondence in many forms. Social media is not as powerful because it’s easy to ignore and impossible to tell if you live in their district or state. Emails and letters are usually grouped by topic and counted, and mass mailings of form letters that address the topic generally are sent in response.
This is why responses rarely respond directly to your concerns and feel often feel impersonal. Your messages are tracked and put into reports for the representative to read, and a few are selected by staffers for the representative to look at individually. With hundreds of letters and emails coming in every day, it’s impossible for staff to always recognize which are most important or for the representative to read them.
Understand why phone calls and in-person meetings are more effective
Because emails and other written correspondence is so easily batched by computer programs, a hundred or a thousand emails on a subject both require the same amount of effort by staff. Phone calls are more effective because they require a staffer to be on the phone with someone and respond to questions immediately.
Calling your representative’s DC office might feel more natural because they are the office primarily responsible for managing legislation. However, the state office staffers are usually from your state and part of the community you live in—they are truly local. Also, state office numbers are less likely to be busy or have a long hold. Significant volumes of calls in a state office also require coordination by the DC and district office staff and get noticed right away.
From time to time, I had large groups of people come into our state office by appointment and share their stories. This was particularly effective with immigration and climate change groups who brought in experts to answer questions. They gave perspective and knowledge we would not have had otherwise. It is easy to get an appointment with a local staffer or a DC staffer, and these relationships pay off.
For those who are unable to make phone calls or in-person visits for any reason, that’s okay. It doesn’t mean your voice goes unheard. Most constituents have never contacted their representative, so you’re miles ahead of your neighbors. Sending emails and letters as part of a coordinated effort make a difference and send a message.
Get involved with local advocacy groups
Advocacy groups do more than spend money on lobbying in Washington, DC. Many of them have local chapters organize and make connections with members of congress and their staff. The most effective ones understand that a direct connection with the staff is just as important as meeting with the representative.
Advocacy groups research the most important pieces of legislation and where they are in Congress. They know who is on which committees and can organize phone trees, email campaigns, and in-person meetings to put pressure on elected officials. They organize and activate so you don’t have to be an expert on everything and you can be as involved as you’d like.
These groups also present an opportunity for those who live in districts or states where they largely agree with their representatives. They need your volunteer and monetary support for areas where there is more work to be done.
Know who to call and what to talk about
As angry as you might be about the election, the electoral college, or the president-elect’s tweets, your member of congress does not have control over these things. Be informed about who your member of congress is and what role they play in the federal government. Do not call your House of Representatives member asking for Supreme Court confirmation hearings, because those hearings happen in the Senate—call your senator instead.
Similarly, do not bother calling a representative’s office if you do not live in their district. Most offices ask where you live and do not record opinions from outside their districts and states. Instead, focus on encouraging your own representative when you agree with them or pushing for more action.
Keep your phone calls brief and ask questions that a staffer must answer. For instance, rather than calling in with a rant about obstructionist policies (completely legitimate, but easy to ignore), come up with a natural script with specifics such as bill numbers and it’s place on the schedule so the staff knows you know what you’re talking about.
Make sure you ask your question in a way that is respectful and requires an answer. If they dodge the question, you can ask it again, voice your opinion, and then ask that it be recorded. If the staffer doesn’t know enough about the issue (often an intern), you can ask to speak to a senior staffer or the legislative director who will know more about the policy and the representative’s position.
Now is the time to begin grassroots organization. Get involved in a few key issues that are relevant in your state and that are important to you. Reach out to groups that already have networks and begin volunteering. Put your representatives’ numbers in your phone. You’ll be ready now and on January 22nd.
Read the series tweets that prompted this article here.
Emily Ellsworth is a freelance writer, editor, and social media marketer. She worked for Congressman Jason Chaffetz from 2009-2012 as his Provo district office manager and for Congressman Chris Stewart from 2013-2014 as his constituent services manager. During the 2016 election, she was a part of the group Republican Women for Hillary and ran a local chapter in Utah.