Working for the United States Congress, I meet with a lot of people. And my Boss meets with even more people than I do.
Most of these folks, contrary to popular belief, are NOT lobbyists in the K Street, expense account, corporate sense of the word. Most of our visitors are regular people who own businesses, support non-profits, use government programs, or want to talk to their Congressman about an issue that affects them or that they believe in strongly.
For the most part (99% of the time), we enjoy meeting with these visitors. They educate us about the issues, express perspectives that we may not have heard before and keep us engaged with the constituents back home.
But some of our visitors are getting in their own way. Here are some tips that will help you make the most of your Hill visit.
Make an Appointment. It happens almost every day. A constituent who has flown hundreds (or thousands) of miles to D.C. wanders into the office and asks to be squeezed into the schedule. We always try to accommodate them, but the odds that we can do so at the last minute are incredibly slight.
If you know you are coming to D.C., give us a call and we’ll find a space for you. We want to meet with you, but there’s a schedule and it fills up.
Make Your Appointment in Advance. If you call me on Friday for a Monday appointment, I will probably be able to find space for you but the odds that the Congressman will have a hole in his calendar are slim to none. A Member’s calendar can book up weeks in advance, especially during the busy season (more on that later).
Want to meet with the Member? Call the office (yes, on the phone, like in the 1950s) and ask for the Scheduler’s e-mail address. Send her an e-mail (welcome to modern times) telling her when you will be in town, what time you would like to meet, what you would like to discuss and if there is flexibility in your plans. Be as specific as possible.
If you haven’t heard from us within a week of your suggested meeting, call again. Talk to the scheduler and reference your earlier e-mail.
To make sure you get a meeting, you should start this process one month before you come to visit. If you don’t know until a few weeks before, you need to call and talk to someone immediately. Don’t wait. Waiting kills.
Months That End in -Er. Today, a constituent, who stood in a 40 minute security line to enter the building, asked me, “Is there a time of the year when this place isn’t busy?” Why yes, there is.
For whatever reason, nearly every association and group (AMA, AIPAC, Farm Bureau, etc.) brings their members to D.C. between March 15th and Memorial Day. This makes March, April and May very, very busy.
Conversely, September, October and early-November are much less busy. And during January and February, the Hill is a ghost town (relatively).
So if you are attending alone or you have control over when your group will attend (lobbyists, I’m looking at you), come in October. The weather’s still pretty good. The calendars are only half full. The hotels are cheaper. And you can actually walk through a museum without having 200 school children screaming in your ear.
Dog Day Afternoon. Drive down Independence Ave between 10:00AM and 4:00PM on a regular Wednesday and you will see a line snaking out the door of the House Office Buildings. Why? Because most organizations, non-profits and groups schedule their “Hill day” on Wednesday. THIS IS THE WORST POSSIBLE DAY TO COME TO THE HILL!!!
Just like there are months other than April, there are days other than Wednesday.
Why? Because the Close-Up, NYLC, and other school groups all come to the Hill on Wednesday. So there will be hundreds (if not thousands) of high school and junior high students at the Capitol.
Additionally, a disproportionate number of hearings, mark-ups and votes are on Wednesday. So the Member will likely be out of the office for most of the day and his staffers will be with him. This greatly decreases your chances of getting on the calendar. It can also shorten your meetings from a leisurely 20-30 minutes to a harried, vote-interrupted 5-10 minutes.
So if you belong to an organization that hosts a fly-in, encourage them to come on Monday or Tuesday or Thursday. You’ll have better luck scheduling meetings, longer meetings, and an easier time getting around.
Knowledge is Power. When you come to a Congressman’s office, the more information you have about your issue the better. If your group wants you to support a bill, know the number or at least the sponsor. If you’re supposed to give us a letter or a packet, remember to bring it. And if you need something from us, bring your business card so we can get back to you.
The cardinal sin for a visitor is walking into the office and saying, “I was supposed to tell you about this bill, but I don’t remember the number/the sponsor/the exact subject matter.” You paid the money for your trip to be an advocate for your cause, so take this part of the job seriously. Otherwise you send the Congressman and his staff on a legislative Easter Egg hunt that may or may not go your way.
Stand Ins. Unlike Senate offices, House offices are small and cramped. Usually, you’re wedging ten people or more and all of their office furnishing into 1,000sq ft or less. This means we don’t have conference rooms or meeting space. So you might end up meeting in the hallway or the cafeteria.
This does not mean that you’re not important. This does not mean that we don’t care about your issues. It just means that 435 people on the House side are sharing less square footage than the 100 people on the Senate side.
Attending fly-ins, conventions or just visiting D.C. is pricey. You wouldn’t come here unless the issue or the cause mattered to you or your livelihood. So make the most of your trip by following a few simple suggestions. Come when the Capitol is less busy, schedule appointments in advance, be prepared and remember to thank your friendly neighborhood Hill staffer.