Get to Know Your Elected Officials

This series of blog posts runs from October 14-18 and celebrates Food Week of Action. Learn more and get involved here.

Visiting your elected representative in person is one of the most effective ways as a constituent to make your voice heard. Don’t be intimidated into thinking that only professional “experts” or lobbyists have the skills or knowledge to visit elected officials. As a constituent rooted in your community, you’re an expert and bring an authenticity that a professional lobbyist never will. When done right, in-person visits are one of the most effective ways to make your voice heard, especially if you visit multiple times.

Your various elected officials serve you at the different levels of local, state, and federal government, from your local county commissioner or city council member to your senator, and you can meet with any of them. While the tips in this blog post are focused on visiting your members of Congress, you can apply these principles more broadly too!

This post includes some examples and photos of grassroots lobbying from our summer 2019 campaign with contract poultry farmers. We went to Washington, DC with a group of contract farmers to ask for support in an upcoming USDA rulemaking process. This fall the USDA will release a rule governing “undue preference” between independent livestock farmers and powerful meat processing companies. We went with farmers to ask for Congressional support in demanding USDA craft strong protections for farmers from corporate abuse and exploitation.

Tips for visiting your members of Congress

While you may think of lobbying as something that people do in DC, keep in mind that you can also meet with Senators and Representatives while they’re in their home states and districts. Check out the 2019 Congressional calendar to find out when the House and Senate are in session, and when you can expect your members of Congress to be back home. The members’ websites will have instructions on how to schedule a visit. You may need to be persistent (especially with local offices) and/or flexible (especially with DC offices). Give yourself at least a few weeks of lead time to schedule your visit.

As a constituent lobbyist in DC, it may be tempting to share your opinion with members of Congress who do not represent you; but non-constituent visits are not useful and may even be counterproductive.

One reason that in-person visits can have a real impact is because stories personalize an issue for a legislator or their staff. Whether you are sharing your own personal story (ideally) or another story from your district or state, stories put a face on the difference that a bill or request would make for real people in the members’ constituency. For example, during our July DC visit farmers shared their personal stories of how corporate consolidation has hurt them. The most powerful farmer stories were how the issue affected their families, like scraping together loose change to buy a daughter’s birthday cake because they don’t earn a living wage. Humanize your issue as much as possible using your personal story, but don’t exaggerate and avoid making generalizations. The truth is sufficient in these situations.

Another way to increase the impact of your visit is to bring a multi-sector group of constituents with you. This tells your congressional representative that you are not alone, that their constituents are organizing around this issue, and that the group collectively speaks for many. Let the staffers know ahead of time who is coming, from what groups, and how many people there will be so they can make sure they have the right meeting space available for the meeting. Also, be sure when lobbying as a group to meet before you go, make a plan for the visit (who will say what and when), and make sure everyone is on the same page and focused on the core message.

For example, in July we traveled with a group of cattle, hog, and chicken farmers from 8 different locations across the country. This showed that our issue isn’t regional, nor specific to a single sector of livestock. We asked the farmers before the visit to write down their story and practice it enough times that they could tell their story in two minutes without reading from a paper. We also gathered with our group to decide who would start each meeting, who would present our request and the background for it, and in what order farmers would tell stories.

Get informed before you go about your representative’s values, priorities, and voting record. Research the member’s history on the issue, and what values have driven their voting decisions so far. Try to connect your request to those values or how they are framing the issue. Their websites are a good place to start. It’s also helpful to start your meeting with a thank you, so you may want to find some positive and relevant action or vote that they have taken.

Craft your “ask”. It is important for you to be clear about what you are communicating to the office. They will be expecting a specific “ask” that the member could address, like voting for a piece of legislation, engaging with a federal office, or supporting an issue. Be sure what you’re asking for is something they have at least some influence over. Is there a specific federally-funded program or agency that you interacted with that deserves either praise or change? Is there a specific issue that is preventing you from being more successful or that you are concerned about, that the office will be interacting with? If you are visiting about a piece of legislation, know where that legislation is in the process, the bill number, and who the sponsors are, and bring several copies of a one-page bill summary that you can leave behind with their office.

Know what to expect. Getting time with your actual representative is not guaranteed. You will most often be meeting with their “LA,” or Legislative Assistant, who works on the issues you are coming to speak about. Often meeting with the LA or staffer can be more productive than meeting with the member of Congress. Staffers meticulously read through each bill, attend briefings and hearings, distill essential information for the member’s consumption, and can be very influential in winning a member’s support. If the member of Congress does attend your meeting, it may be for a brief part of the visit, so have a plan for the most important and memorable things you want to say to the member directly.

Be on time. Research your logistics ahead of time and share this information with everyone in your group. Which office building is your representative in? How long does it take to get there? Where will you park? Should you expect a line going through security? Plan on getting there early. For example, during our July farmer fly-in to DC many of the farmers had never visited the Capitol. While traveling between Senate and Congressional buildings we passed the Capitol Building. Since many of the farmers had never visited DC they wanted to stop and take selfies with this iconic US landmark. Think about how being in DC for the first time might impact your schedule!

Be courteous. Although there are many legitimate reasons to be upset, and it’s okay to talk about your issue with passion and conviction, remain courteous and professional. Congressional staffers deal with a lot of angry people, and you have a better chance of being listened to and building a productive working relationship over time if you maintain a respectful atmosphere. If you are fortunate enough to have a meeting with a member of Congress be sure to address them by their formal title, i.e. Senator, Congresswoman, Congressman.

Have a conversation. In a meeting you may feel “if I just tell my story with enough detail surely they will help me.” While this should be the case, it often isn’t. Prepare yourself to have a conversation with the member of Congress or staffer. Allow space for them to ask questions, answer their questions succinctly, and try not to dominate the meeting. Be able to tell your story and why you’re visiting in less than 4-5 minutes. Good meetings are those in which conversation happens on both sides of the table, you spark their interest, and make them want to learn more about the issue. It is also an opportunity for you to ask questions! Staffers usually have a good read on the political landscape surrounding a bill, and if you are working with a broader coalition, this information can be very helpful!

Manage the time. The amount of time you can expect will be very different depending on the office’s schedule. If Congress is in session and the staffer is involved in legislation that is moving, you may have just a few minutes. If Congress is in recess or nothing is moving, they may have an hour or more, depending on their interest. Generally you can expect 20-40 minutes with a staffer. But know that a visit can be interrupted at any time by staffers being called away, floor votes, or the Congressperson or Senator stepping in to the meeting. Make sure that you are clear on your most important points, and that you make them early and often.

At the beginning of the meeting there will be time for conversation about “back home.” Staffers will want to know who you know, and will want to show their connection to the district, and you want to show your connection to them. However, staffers can also use conversations about back home or tangential issues to prevent you from talking about what you want to talk about, or asking what you want to ask. Don’t be afraid to respectfully bring the conversation back to your issue.

Follow up. Staffers will typically hand out their cards at the end of the meeting. Email them to thank them for their time and attention. This is also a good basis for starting a long and productive email correspondence! You can also amplify your impact over time by continuing to visit with the member and their staff. While it takes some investment, consistency, and follow-up to build a relationship with a Congressional office, it is an incredibly valuable opportunity to connect and be heard on legislation and issues in the future.

More ways to make an impact

Traveling to DC takes time and money, and it’s not the only way to make your voice heard or to build a relationship! Here are more options:

  • Invite your member of Congress to an event related to the work you are doing in your community – they love to be photographed interacting with constituents! Keep in mind that they may use those photographs publicly as a way of implying that they have your support; but also that you can refer back to such public displays as you continue to ask them to support your cause.
  • Build an email relationship with staffers. Over time, if you have built a history of respectful, thoughtful, and informed correspondence, staffers may come to see you as someone to ask about the issues you’ve been discussing.
  • Write an op-ed in which you mention your elected official, as a way to bring dialogue into the public sphere. Most members of Congress have staff monitoring media for mentions of their name. Keep in mind that the tone of the op-ed should support your overall strategy with that member of Congress.
  • Call your member of Congress. Identify yourself as a constituent, and tell the staffer what action you are hoping the member will take. It is also helpful to call to thank the member after their vote or action on something, or to express disappointment – it lets the member know that their voters are committed to engagement on that issue and paying attention.
  • Many important policy decisions are made during an administration’s implementation of a law – not only as the law is written. “Rule-making” is an official process for government agencies as they implement laws, and involves sharing the rule as an opportunity for public comment. Stakeholders and the general public can respond with their opinions on the rule, and agencies will sometimes release second or third drafts of the rule based on public feedback. Rule-making is also an opportunity to ask for Congressional support.

There are lots of ways that you can make a difference! RAFI-USA has many years of experience connecting farmers and other community members with the policy-making process. If you are planning a visit, call us and let us know how we can help!

This blog series is put together by RAFI-USA’s Come to the Table program team. Learn more about CTTT here.

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