For most Americans, August means more time at the beach, afternoons on the golf course and maybe a family reunion. For Congress, it means dozens of meetings with constituents back home.
One of the perpetual myths about Congress is that recess is some kind of vacation (imagining legislators streaming from the Capitol to get to the kickball field). According to a Congressional Management Foundation survey of members of the House, the average work week for a legislator during recess is 59 hours.
For citizens aiming to get Congress to understand their views, congressional staff report the best way is to invite their boss to attend an event or visit a group in the district or state. The four- to five-week August recess is an excellent time to do this. However, staff members responsible for setting up these events also report significant variance in the acumen, skills and practices of groups requesting meetings (not to mention a frequent absence of common courtesy).
The CMF recently surveyed House district directors and got some clear guidance on the do’s and don’ts of requesting meeting and visits to facilities.
Send a Request Three or Four Weeks in Advance. This seems to be the magical time period when congressional staff begin sorting through invitations and planning a recess week. If possible, requestors should be flexible on the timing. “Constituent groups should always allow the congressional office to determine the time they will meet with the member instead of their dictating the best time frame for them,” one senior staffer said.
Clearly Identify Constituents Attending. By far the top pet peeve of congressional staff are groups hiding details or playing coy about who will attend the meeting. Groups hinting any degree of subterfuge are quickly tagged. Keep in mind — congressional offices won’t necessarily inform the group they’ve been put in the penalty box. They will just get a polite email declining the invitation. Especially in a campaign year, congressional staff are extremely leery of any unexpected participants when their boss is present. Conversely, if you note the constituents attending up front, the request will be prioritized.
Reference Connections to National Groups. In the survey of district directors, 98 percent said meeting with “interest group representatives” was important or very important for understanding their views. Similarly 89 percent said meeting with those groups was important for developing new ideas for legislation. These interactions are crucial for legislators to understand the impact of their decisions on a group of constituents.
Site/Facility/Business Visits Reign Supreme. Members of Congress genuinely treasure the opportunity to mix it up with their constituents in real-life settings. And congressional staff are scouring invites looking for the best photo-op that visually connects the legislator to a group or issue. Big, dangerous looking equipment, farm animals, little kids, veterans — any opportunity to get the boss out of official business attire and away from a microphone. If the legislator has to wear protective gear during the visit, all the better. (Hard hats are good. Hairnets, not so much.)
Association, nonprofit and corporate government relations professionals in D.C. often meet resistance among their own network when they encourage their grass-roots community to invite a member of Congress to their local headquarters. Yet, Congress is actually interested in good in-state events. About a year after the House instituted the new schedule with 12 recesses (up from five the year before), I was asked to meet with a chief of staff. He said they had a problem with the district office. I was surprised, as I knew this office to be well-run and known for good events in the district. “But the district office can’t get enough good events on the schedule,” he said. “There are just too many recess days and the boss isn’t happy.”
Many event or meeting requests coming to Congress are incomplete or just don’t connect the opportunity to a pending legislative issue. Invitations that are clear about the group’s intentions, detailed on the logistics and flexible on the timing will not only impress the office, they’ll actually translate into a visit by a member of Congress.
Bradford Fitch is the president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation, and a former congressional staffer.