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The Best and Worst of Constituent Meetings With Lawmakers (and Staff)

It’s spring, which means Congress is in store for two types of “invasions”: the parade of Hollywood types for the annual correspondent dinners and thousands of constituents as part of organized fly-ins or lobby days. The first is splayed on the front pages, all glamorous with gowns, tuxedos and red carpets. The second is the invisible drudgery that is composed of the big part of America’s democratic dialogue. Reality is rarely seen in “House of Cards,” rather, it’s hidden in the thousands of meetings on Capitol Hill involving tens of thousands of constituents. It’s not hidden because of any nefarious conspiracy — it’s just kind of boring, not the stuff of the evening news or a blogger’s interest.

A huge amount of resources are invested in the constituent-to-Congress meetings by advocacy groups, citizens, congressional staffers and members. To Congress, it is often the best way for legislators to understand the impact of their decisions on citizens. In a Congressional Management Foundation survey of congressional staff, 97 percent of respondents said “in-person meetings with constituents” would have some or a lot of influence on an undecided lawmakers. Regrettably, many citizens are ill-prepared for these important interactions. A recent CMF survey of legislative directors and legislative assistants revealed the best and the worst of their interactions with citizens organized by associations, nonprofits and companies. Here are some things staff reported they experience somewhat or very frequently in meetings with constituents.

Unaware of the Member’s Background. A sizable percentage (78 percent) said constituents didn’t know the legislator’s relevant committee assignments and 87 percent didn’t know the member’s history on the issue discussed. In the age of the Internet, this is simply a case of bad homework. While not every member of Congress is hosting an award-winning website, the majority of members are linking to their sponsorships and voting records and are offering more statements on policy issues. Constituents can also Google the legislator’s name and an issue to read newspaper and blog articles on their topic.

Too Many Talking Points. Staff may exaggerate how often this occurs (84 percent said frequently), but it sticks in their head when a representative for a group ticks off a laundry list of eight requests. The legislator will likely pick the easiest to say yes to, check a box and move on. The “ask” list in a constituent meeting should be kept to two or three items.

Too Many People in the Meeting. One of the downsides of Hollywood’s portrayal of D.C. is the lavish settings where we supposedly work. When I was a staffer in the ’90s I remember watching a “West Wing” episode where Josh and Sam met with congressional staff in a cavernous, mahogany room, while uniformed waiters served them coffee from a silver pot. The constituents who watch those shows are in for a rude awakening when they arrive for a meeting on the fifth floor of Cannon House Office Building. If you’re a group with more than three constituents coming to a meeting with Congress, it’s best to call ahead so the staffer or member can meet you in a cafeteria, self-scheduled meeting rooms or outside a hearing room.

Constituents Don’t Understand the Consequences of Their Request. The most frequent occurrence (at 95 percent) staff reported was that the constituent didn’t understand the complexity of the issue or the impact on the legislator of supporting them. One staffer said, “Many cheerleaders for their cause don’t want to admit that there could be potential downsides.” Lobbyists and citizens should appreciate that congressional staff will find out the pros and cons anyway — it’s part of their job — do you want them finding out from you or someone else?

And remember: If you deliver a poor performance for a member or staff, it is very unlikely they’ll tell you. You’re a voter, and they’re politicians, and they want to make nice to everyone. They will, however, bemoan the interaction — perhaps even endangering the chances they’ll support your cause. Since that is the point of the meeting, it’s best to do it well.

Bradford Fitch is president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation, and a former staffer.

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