Understanding American Politics: Dealing With Your Congressman
Everything Your Congressman Doesn’t Want You To Know
In my last article (Understanding American Politics: The Process), I gave you a “peek behind the curtain” so to speak, and showed you the real process for how bills become laws in this country. After the response I received, I’ve decided to write a follow up and give you a “user’s manual” for dealing with your Congressman.
Our Congressional leaders serve at the pleasure of the public, and it’s important that we never forget that. In this article, I will give you a roadmap for getting your Congressman to take you, and your issues seriously. I’ll teach you how to deal effectively with his/her staff, and get them on your side. Most importantly, I’ll show you how to greatly increase the chances of getting your Congressman to move on your issues, and take your argument to Washington.
Before We Begin: A Warning To All
As with my last article, this is an article on the process and not the ideology. Save the talking points for the forums. Discussion on this article should be kept to the topic at hand.
Step 1: Know What It Is You Want
When I was a Congressional Staffer, at least twice a day, I would get phone calls from people who were angry about something, or had an issue with something going on in Washington, and yet, when I would ask them: “what is it you’d like the Congressman to do for you”, they didn’t have an answer. This is a cardinal sin when it comes to dealing with your representative. If you don’t know what it is you want, how do you expect them to?
Before you call, or write, your Congressman, take the time to “plan your case”. You have to remember that Congressmen get tons of calls, letters, emails, and telegrams (yes, people do still send telegrams) each week, so if you want yours to stand out you need to take the time to do some leg work. Have specific goals, or things you’d like to see accomplished, whether it’s the Congressman getting involved on an issue, or even getting a new law passed; know what action you want the Congressman to take.
Step 2: Do Your Homework… And Theirs
This is the absolute biggest, most important, most crucial part of actually getting something accomplished when you're dealing with your Congressman. I cannot stress enough how important is, so if you only take one thing away from this article, let this be it: DO YOUR OWN HOMEWORK!
If you read my article on Understanding the Process (go ahead, I’ll wait…), then you know that the first person you need to “convince” is the member of the Congressman’s staff that answers the phone. Nothing, and I mean nothing, will get you on the “pay-no-mind” list faster than calling in with an idea, or a proposal for a bill, and not having done even the most basic research on it.
My philosophy was: “if you didn’t do any legwork, then you either: a) aren’t informed enough on the topic for your idea to be viable or, b) are so lazy that, even if I ignore you, you’re not likely to become a pain in my ass.” Either way, it meant you were getting a canned response or a form letter, and the brush off.
The Key To Getting Their Attention
Let’s say that you have the same idea as Jane did in the last article, and you think that all schools should require their students to wear uniforms. Before you call your Congressman, do some research. It doesn’t have to be anything ridiculously hard, just enough to pass my litmus test (which is the same one that almost every staffer uses, whether they admit it or not): are you actually knowledgeable enough about the subject to have come up with a decent idea, and are you serious about it, or just calling to complain?
Here is a pretty simple formula to follow for writing a briefing memo:
- Is this a National Issue or a local one?
- Who/How Many would be affected?
- Who supports your idea?
- Who opposes, or is likely to oppose, your idea?
- Has this issue come up before?
- Is there any existing precedent elsewhere in the Country?
These are just some of the most basic questions to answer before you try to get your Congressman involved. If you can’t answer them, then you need to do more homework. Also, remember to follow standard “Dragnet rules”, meaning "just the facts". The idea length for a briefing memo is one page. This isn’t your whole argument; this is just to let them know that you’re smarter than the average bear, and not likely to go away, unless there is some substantive discussion on the issue.
Pro Tip: We’ll talk about this more in the next section, but I think it’s worth mentioning now; if you want to guarantee that your issue gets in front of the Congressman A.S.A.P., then get a petition together, the more names the better.
Step 3: Give Them A Carrot
I’m sure that you’ve all probably heard the term “Political Capital”, well, aside from your vote, you don’t have any; and if you want to have your issues taken seriously, we need to get you some. Not only do you have no political capital, you may find yourself opposing a powerful lobby, thus increasing the chances of your issue being shown the door.
By doing some quick research online, you can find other people, and organizations that share your beliefs; trust me, I see it all the time. You can increase your clout by joining forces with them and combining your efforts. The phrase "strength in numbers" is never more true than in politics.
As I mentioned above, petitions are powerful things; they demonstrate that you are serious about your issue, and that there are other people out there who care about your issue also. You can also steal a page from your Congressman's playbook, and pledge the support of your group on other issues, in return for support on yours.
Another great way to get your Congressman on your side, is to get the support of companies, and individuals that have supported (by supported, I mean donated to) the Congressman in the past. There are plenty of places online to finds this information, and a quick Google search will set you on the right path.
Do not solicit contributions on your Congressman's behalf! Nor should you offer, entice, imply, or suggest to your Congressman that there will be any monetary benefit, or any other considerations for specific action, aside from your vote.
Step 4: Show Them The Stick
Before I get into this last topic, let me take a moment to warn you about something: ready… do not, under any circumstances, threaten, either physically, or politically, a Congressman or his/her staff. If you threaten them physically, you’ll most likely go to jail, as the authorities don’t really have a sense of humor about that kind of thing. What you should do, is go Alex Forrest on them and let them know, in no uncertain terms, that "you will not be ignored". Do yourself a favor and learn how to write an effective Press Release.
If all else fails, find yourself a candidate for the next election that does support your views, and then get to work getting them elected. Come out as publically, and as often as you can. If it’s someone from the same party as the incumbent, then make some noise for your new guy/girl with the party leadership.
If it’s someone from the other party, then you should be writing letters to everyone but Santa Claus talking about how you are breaking from your party to support someone who shares your values. If you do this enough, either one of two things will happen: your new guy/girl will win, or the incumbent will finally recognize that you are going to be an incessant pain, and will finally take a look at your issue.
Something To Remember
While it is important to make sure that your Congressman takes you seriously, you also have to remember that he/she isn’t a magician. There are some ideas, some very good ideas, which will simply never go anywhere, for a variety of reasons.
Your main goal should only ever be to have your issues taken seriously and given the consideration that they deserve. There were times when we would fight hard for an issue and lose, and the constituents would still be satisfied because we at least “fought the good fight”, and that’s really all you can ask from any Congressman.