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The Hill Life: Tips for Visitors (non-Tourist)

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.  

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  1. P says:

    And, for the love of god, take all your crap out of your pockets before going through the metal detector!

    May 4, 2011/Reply
  2. Taylor says:

    As another staffer, I concur with all of the above! To add something to the Stand Ins section–House offices are really, really small. If you are a visitor waiting in the front room for a meeting, we can hear you! Please use common courtesy like indoor voices and not telling off-color stories about your weekend. It doesn't create a good first impression.

    May 4, 2011/Reply
  3. AnonEMouse says:

    AMEN!!!!!

    May 4, 2011/Reply
  4. Alison says:

    As a scheduler, I say AMEN!! Can we please send this out to all lobbying shops too? And how do you not check the legislative calendar before scheduling receptions and fly-ins? I can't tell you the number of events and meeting requests we get for my boss during a District Work Period. Nice for me, not great for the lobbyists.

    May 4, 2011/Reply
  5. M says:

    Fly-ins and such events are often planned at least a year ahead of time, and for the time of year when your bosses are more likely to be in town… Hence the Wednesday and March through May visits.

    May 4, 2011/Reply
  6. Belle says:

    Because Congress never works in January, February, July, September, or October. Or on Tuesday or Thursdays.

    Sadly, a lot of groups plan because of weather since people also want to do touristy things. I've planned nearly a dozen fly-ins and conventions and Directors from other states always want to come when the weather's nice. I once moved a fly-in from February to late March because the Texas delegation didn't want to be cold. The weather is fine in the Fall.

    May 4, 2011/Reply
  7. BB says:

    I've planned fly-ins (among other things–not all lobbyists work on K street, have expense accounts, or are even compensated better than their counterparts on the Hill, but that's another issue entirely) for associations for the past six years. While your advice is perfect for tourists, or people who just want to meet their elected officials, there's method to the “lobby day” madness:

    To echo M, many advocacy groups (especially those who have annual fly-ins) plan their events a year (or more, depending on the size and budget) out. Once the contract for the room block or other event space is signed, it is very expensive to change the dates.

    We plan events based on what we think the Congressional calendar will be–we know about August recess so we don't make any plans for August and the first week or so of September. We know there is always an early October “target adjournment” in election years. We know the two weeks sandwiching Easter probably aren't the best time. Same with a few days around MLK Day, Presidents Day, Memorial Day, and Independence Day. But the thing is, these “few days” recesses aren't always predictable a year out.

    January isn't good, especially in an odd year, because offices may not have filled their staff out after the elections. Yes, there is rapid turnover in Hill offices, but for the time and expense it takes to hold a fly-in, we'd like to at least have a decent shot at talking to the staffer that will be handling our issues for the year.

    Advocacy groups want to discuss their priority issues BEFORE they are voted on. So we aim to have our planned fly-ins in the first half of the year, again, to at least have a decent shot accomplishing this. Also, in an election year, the month of October is out because Members of Congress are campaigning, and with the holidays, it is difficult to schedule an event after mid-November.

    Moreover, the weather in DC is unpredictable January-early March. Beyond just comfort reasons associated with very cold weather, we have to worry about our members canceling their trips to DC because of snowstorms (or even the threat of snowstorms), which ends up costing the host group in sleeping room attrition. Or, even worse, if members come to town despite the snow, and Congress or the Feds shut down, we have nothing for our members to do for two days. But there are also comfort reasons involved–when you work for an organization that relies on voluntary member dues or donor contributions (instead of say, relying on the IRS to just annex part of my earnings—I keed—sort of…), you want to make the members happy. Cold members are not happy members. Happy members do not renew (or re-contribute).

    While I prefer to meet with staff to work on issues, my members like to get a chance at the grip and grin with their Congressman. Since even during “Washington Work Weeks”, Monday votes are usually postponed until 6:30, and Friday votes are over by 3 (if that–everyone in DC knows the Washington work week FOR ELECTED OFFICIALS is Tuesday-Thursday), we are really working with Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday for Hill visits.

    But I agree on the part about standing in the halls (don't be offended), and leaving the handouts with the staffer (why one would want to keep 10 copies of a one-pager is beyond me). Also, I always add “don't be surprised when the staffer is younger than you anticipated”, and “don't say 'I voted for you', 'I didn't vote for you', 'I won't vote for you' or 'I will give you money'”. That's just tacky.

    May 4, 2011/Reply
  8. Belle says:

    BB-I appreciate that group of 20+ can't change their plans. But I get a lot of small groups or individuals who could come at any time of the year. And while your point about coming before your legislation is passed is a good one, I would guess only 2 out of 5 meetings that I take are coming about a specific bill.

    I just look at the truckloads of people who tell me they can't get meetings in April and May and on Wednesdays and think, well if you came another time. I know this isn't feasible for everyone, but you have to admit, there are groups in this town who could be coming on other days and in other months.

    And the close up people and highschool groups could definitely pick another day. Cause they fall to the bottom of the pile when we get busy.

    May 4, 2011/Reply
  9. Letty says:

    Brava, Belle!

    I've been an LD for 10 years, and the number of meetings I didn't take because they came on a Wednesday in April measure in the thousands. But you forgot to mention the worst thing: the groups, city governments and organizations who come three or four or five times per year. If they spend the money on their city/cause/group that they spend coming to visit me for 30 minutes, they wouldn't need federal funding. Several Congresses ago, my Boss actually asked a school superintendent to stop coming after he revealed that he brought his wife, stayed at the Mayflower and ate at Citronelle on city funds.

    Send an email, it's free. Make a phone call, it's free. Come only if you must.

    May 4, 2011/Reply
  10. BJ says:

    I'm seriously considering adding this to my signature line…j/k. Great insights!

    Belle, it's time you start writing self-help books: one for fashion, one for beauty and makeup, etiquette and a two part surviving the Hill guide (a staff edition and an everything else edition).

    May 5, 2011/Reply