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Cardinal Rules for Working with Congress
>>> This is an excerpt
from the book Working With Congress: A Practical Guide for
Scientists and Engineers, 2nd ed., by William G. Wells, Jr.
Click here for more information.
Whatever mode you use for working
with or contacting those in Congress, your overriding concern
should be: How can I improve my chances for communicating my ideas
successfully and getting them accepted? In operational terms,
this means you should keep to the following guidelines:
Convey That You Understand Something about Congress.
A recurring complaint among members
of Congress and their staffs is that so many who come to see them
seem to know so little about Congress. Members and staff don't
expect you to be an expert on Congress, but they do appreciate
(and have more respect for) those who display an awareness and
understanding of what is going on--particularly with regard to
the conditions members and staff face. Among other things, these
conditions include severe time constraints, competing demands
for legislative and budget priorities, and the imperatives of
reelection. Citing what may be an extreme case, a staff member
explained why one visitor received a negative reception: "This
guy didn't realize that representatives have to face an election
every two years!"
Demonstrate Your Grasp of the Fundamentals of the Congressional
Members and staff say that one of the
most difficult things to get scientists and engineers to understand
is the tough reality faced by members in balancing competing interests,
building working alliances, and achieving acceptable compromises.
Among their comments are that "scientific elites don't acknowledge
other legitimate interests"; "there is a lack of understanding
that they are in a competition like everyone else"; and "scientists
are perceived as just another constituency." Finally, as one staffer
pointed out, there is "a frequent misperception that a member
will vote against one of his or her constituencies if only you
will give them the correct facts." Unlike science, politics can't
be reduced to empirical facts and figures. Indeed, it is rare
that an initiative is not substantially modified through compromises
and trade-offs before a final policy decision is made or a law
is enacted. This means that you may lose even if you have a good
case and a good relationship with the member. It also means that
you should not take it personally and should keep trying. Persistence
can pay off.
Don't Seek Support of Science as an Entitlement.
This may seem obvious, but it is a
problem that occurs with sufficient frequency to require highlighting.
Members and staff react negatively when they are presented with
arguments in support of science that they see as being cast in
"entitlement terms." In their words, scientists and engineers
should not "convey an attitude of being inherently deserving in
contrast to other seekers of the public largesse," and support
for science should be "presented in terms of helping to meet national
needs, or to achieve societal goals, not as an entitlement owed
Don't Convey Negative Attitudes about Politics and Politicians.
Even if you have some inner, private
views that are less than flattering about politics and politicians,
keep them to yourself while working with Congress. It is the kiss
of death to be perceived as having a "holier than thou" attitude,
or as one staff member put it, to "convey that the purity of the
scientific profession puts you `above all of this.'"
Perform Good Intelligence Gathering in Advance.
Intelligence gathering involves learning
at least the basics about the member, committee, or staff member
you are contacting. As one staff member exclaimed, "Can you believe
this person didn't even know which party my boss belongs to?"
A good one-stop source is Congressional Quarterly's Politics in
America; other sources include hearing records, speeches, floor
statements, and conversations with Washington friends who are
knowledgeable about Congress (see the Guide
to Congress). In addition, one staff member suggested that,
"Too many people make a serious mistake by not leveraging or using
the Washington offices of trade associations and companies."
Begin by learning where a member
comes from (state/district), their committee assignments and professional
background, where they stand politically on various issues, and
how they fit into the congressional power structure. Try to learn
if the member already has a view on your issue. As one senior
staff person said, "Know what is on the member's mind in terms
of recent concerns. Check recent hearings and floor debates."
For staff, there is less published information, but it is still
possible to get reasonably accurate profiles by making a few telephone
calls to Washington friends, agency staff, association staff,
and the office of your senator or representative, and by consulting
the Congressional Staff Directory.
Staying in touch with developments
is an important part of gathering intelligence. A good daily newspaper
or weekly newsmagazine can keep you up to date on what Congress
may be engrossed in at the moment. If a member is spending most
of his or her time worrying about the budget or about foreign
affairs, your recognition of that fact is important. Your sensitivity
to such developments will smooth your road and perhaps your conversation.
To stay on top of specific issues in Congress, you may want to
read the Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report or the National
Journal or check on developments through an on-line electronic
subscription service such as Politics USA.
Always Use a Systematic Checklist.
One good way to ensure careful, complete
advance preparation is to write out a good checklist. Whether
for participating in an elaborate meeting, presenting a statement
in a hearing, or making a simple telephone call, prepare carefully.
Think carefully about what you will want to leave at the meeting.
This should include, according to a senior staff person, things
right down to your business card with the date and a brief mention
of your meeting topic. It was pointed out that "hundreds of cards
get collected, at meetings, at receptions, and so on, and it is
easy to forget six months from now how and why one has a particular
calling card." Put together a simple, clear summary paper of one
or two pages--including a brief background--that can be left after
the meeting. Know what you want to say, and know when you've said
it. Practice in advance with a dry run of your presentation. Demonstrate
by what you say and how you present it that you are well organized
and worth listening to. Such an approach will help you to plan
better and to track your progress during a meeting or a telephone
conversation. You are much less likely to get lost or to forget
an important point.
Do Your Homework on the Issue or Problem.
It's obvious that you should know the
technical side of your issue. Not as obvious, perhaps, is the
importance of translating your message into terms relevant to
Congress. Know which bills (if any) are pertinent. Know which
committees are involved and what they are doing (e.g., holding
hearings, planning hearings, and holding the issue in "deep freeze").
Know which other members are involved and what their views are.
Tie your issue to member interests if possible. Look for connections
between your issue and the member's interests. Such connections
might be his or her legislative interests, they might be related
to constituent concerns. One senior staff person said that, although
it might not always be possible, you should try to "say why your
proposal is important to the member's state or district, how current
efforts are helpful that way, and why your proposal would be good
for the member's constituents." You are on your way if you can
clearly show the member how he or she can gain by going along
with you. Finally, as one staff person said: "Try to have something
to offer--good advice or useful contacts for additional information,
for example." Use concrete examples as often as possible. Congressional
people tend to be oriented to examples and anecdotes rather than
abstractions or broad generalities. Play to this as much as possible
without distorting your case. Staff members are always looking
for "nuggets" to put into member speeches, floor remarks, and
committee hearing remarks. Help them out if you can. As one staff
member observed, "Concrete examples seldom hurt and most often
Timing Is Vital.
All too often, the message may be great,
but it is useless if the timing is all wrong. Keen judgment is
required here. Weighing in too late with your opinion can mean
the legislative train has left the station. As one committee staff
director put it, "It was a good set of suggestions, but we'd already
reported the bill out of committee two days ago. They thought
we could fix it on the floor. Well, maybe--sometimes. But they
should have come three months ago when it was still in subcommittee."
On the other hand, coming too early can be just as bad. A good
effort can be wasted "if it is too early and other matters are
dominating the legislative agenda. We only handle so many things
at a time," according to a senior staff person. Also, keep the
congressional calendar in mind. While activity in the congressional
environment seldom comes to a complete halt, it does vary over
the course of the year. A member observed, "There is a much better
chance of having an in-depth discussion with me during a recess
period, whether in person or on the telephone." This advice applies
to meetings with staff members as well. (See Key
Congressional Websites for links to the House
and Senate calendars.)
Understand Congressional Limitations.
A recurring theme is that too many
people bring problems to Congress and "look to us to devise a
solution instead of presenting a plan for us to consider, modify
and perhaps adopt," said one staff member. It is important to
have a good understanding of just what Congress can do and what
it cannot do. A committee staff director said, "We don't have
big planning staffs that can sit down and spend days analyzing
what somebody drops in our lap--such as a ten-page memo with forty-five
appendices." Enormous time pressures from multiple competing interests
don't leave much time for original analysis and extensive research.
Bear this in mind in your contacts with Congress.
Make It Easy for Those in Congress to Help You.
State your problem or issue
clearly and suggest what action is needed. In describing a meeting
with one group of scientists, a senator said, "They were with
me for twenty minutes, and when they left I still had no idea
why they had come to see me." Avoid this mistake--get the problem
or the issue and your request on the table right away. Work carefully
at honing your request or advice or information so there is no
doubt about your issue, your position, or what you are asking
for. Do this by working out a proposed answer to your request
or by presenting a plan of actions to accomplish what you desire.
Occasionally this might be seen as presumptuous, but more often
it will be seen as well organized on your part. Members and staff
appreciate proposals for action that are clear and articulate,
and show that they have been thought through before presentation.
Congress, if it moves on your proposal, may use your language
or specific suggestions. Have the material ready to use!
Keep the "Bottom Line" in Mind.
In whatever way you are working with
Congress, never forget for a moment what your objective is. Make
it clear to them as well. If you have a hidden objective or agenda,
this is not the book for you. Go back and read Machiavelli's The
Use Time--Yours and Theirs--Effectively.
Members and staff are keenly
aware of the value of time and resent having it wasted. Plan your
efforts in detail and try to make your presentation as concise
as possible. Being disorganized or long winded (on the telephone,
in writing, or in person) is a sure way to limit your success
and future congressional contacts.
A senior staff person cautioned,
"You need to remember that staff is generally overworked, is nearly
always pressed for time, and generally handles many issues besides
the one you are interested in. While interested, they may not
have the level of zeal for your project that you have." Do not
overload them with details or stacks of paper. It is often useful
to have visual ways to make points quickly and effectively. One
staff member said, "I look for good ways to brief my boss quickly."
A bedrock theme from all staff is that severe pressure on time
colors everything they do, including meetings.
Remember that Members and Staff Are Mostly Generalists.
While most are "quick studies,"
you cannot assume that they will immediately understand or appreciate
the value of what you are proposing. Do not expect members or
staff to have deep familiarity with specific pieces of legislation,
or to know their provisions or even their bill numbers. You will
lose them if you if you toss out statements like "Section 222
of Title III of H.R. 4494 will kill us." Be concise, but make
clear what you are taking about. Keep messages simple, don't be
too detailed, and don't overwhelm your listeners with technical
Don't Patronize Either Members or Staff.
Even if it is clear that the
person with whom you are dealing is uninformed or misguided, keep
your cool and maintain a steady course. Don't resort to an "I'll
show this idiot" attitude. On the other hand, it is not necessary
to accept rudeness or insulting behavior meekly. While not frequent,
instances of such conduct do occur. A call or letter to a member
or chairman is one way to respond. Finally, there is always the
"Hill grapevine," which can be available through friends, association
offices in Washington, and reporters who cover Congress.
Don't Underestimate the Role of Staff in Congress.
While it is important to remember
that members are elected and staff are not, staff members generally
play influential roles in the congressional setting. Do not make
the mistake of looking down on a staff member or underestimating
his or her ability to help or hinder you, even if the person happens
to be very junior.
Consider and Offer Appropriate Follow-up.
Seldom will a single meeting
with a member be all that is necessary to achieve your objective.
Possibilities range from a simple follow-up telephone conversation
or two with a staff member to an extended period of working with
staff. Conceivably, other members might become involved. Take
this into account and be certain that follow-up commitments can
be met before you offer them. Before you leave any meeting with
a member, try to have clearly identified the name and phone number
of the staff person who will be your principal follow-up point
of contact. Finally, it is useful and appropriate to ask such
a staff member if he or she thinks you should contact other staff
members about the issue.
Remember your friends and thank
them often. These are more than simple courtesies; they are also
the hallmarks of polished professionals. Keep track of your advocates
and look for ways to express your appreciation. Use handwritten
notes to stay in contact. Private thanks are sometimes appropriate,
but also look for public ways to thank them for their contributions.
Remember That the Great Majority of Members and Staff Are Intelligent,
Hardworking, and Dedicated to Public Service.
If you approach members of Congress
with a positive outlook based on the recognition that on the whole
they are competent and dedicated, the experience is much more
likely to be favorable and fruitful. They need and want your help:
make it easier for them to use it effectively.