How to Connect With Legislators

5 tips to help you be more effective than the vast majority of citizen advocates

By 
Bradford Fitch, President and CEO

Advocacy associations are constantly searching for new ways to influence elected officials. Public policy decisions can profoundly affect anything and everything, including your business. Unfortunately, many stakeholders learn a valuable lesson the hard way: that the time to build strong relationships with your members of Congress is before you need their help.

Effective communication is critical in building any relationship. It’s no different with congressional offices. The Congressional Management Foundation (CMF) has studied congressional communications since its founding 40 years ago. Technology has certainly changed the economics of advocacy.

Advocacy groups no longer need to pay for printing and postage to generate grassroots campaigns to Capitol Hill, giving rise to a significant surge in communications to Congress through email, web forms and social media. It also translates into more competition to get lawmakers’ attention. So what’s the magic formula for standing out in the crowd?

Quality vs. Quantity

CMF research shows that the quality of the interaction is as important as the quantity. For example, a CMF survey of congressional staff found personalized emails or letters are much more influential than identical form communications. Still, nothing beats a good old-fashioned face-to-face meeting. As a congressional staffer told CMF, “In-person meetings are the easiest way for staff to understand an issue because it gives us the chance to ask questions and put a face with the issue or what they’re asking for.”

Many would-be citizen advocates believe that they must travel to Washington, D.C., to meet their members of Congress and staff . That’s a myth. A 2013 CMF survey of House chiefs of staff asked where their member of Congress preferred to meet with constituents: in D.C. or in their home state? More than seven out of 10 said “no preference at all.”

Starting in 2011, the House of Representatives more than doubled the number of district work periods scheduled. This allows citizen advocates more opportunity to engage in higher-quality meetings away from Capitol Hill offices and the distractions and interruptions that are common when Congress is in session.

Be Prepared

Unfortunately, CMF research finds that constituents could prepare better for their meetings with Congress. In a 2014 survey, CMF asked senior congressional staffers “How prepared is the typical constituent you meet with?”

Nearly nine out of 10 respondents indicated that the typical advocate they meet with could be better prepared. That’s why CMF works with advocacy groups to help their supporters to communicate more effectively with their members of Congress.

Here are five tips to help you be more effective than the vast majority of citizen advocates:

  1. Do your homework. Learn about the committees your members are assigned to and positions they may have taken. Constituents are more effective when they can connect their issues to those that members care about. This information is easy to access through a quick Google search or on congress.gov.
  2. Have a specific request that is measurable. Members of Congress want to please their constituents. It’s easier to do when constituents make specific requests, such as to vote for or co-sponsor a bill.
  3. Provide your reasoning for supporting or opposing a bill. Your members need to know who in their districts have a stake in the game and why. For example, if a bill were enacted, it could increase customers’ fuel costs.
  4. Provide information about how issues affect the district or state. Members of Congress value information that helps them understand how a proposal could affect their district. For example, a new law could result in reduced hours, wages or layoffs.
  5. Tell personal stories. Your members need to hear personal stories that help them understand how the decisions they make could affect real people.

Bradford Fitch is president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation. Contact him at bfitch@congressfoundation.org.