Before You Visit Your Legislator Review Some Tips from the Advocacy Gurus
by Janet Justis
On April 30, 2001, approximately 650 librarians, trustees, and Friends of the Library attended briefings re-garding legislation affecting libraries. Many of these advocates were reviewing the facts one last time before setting out to meet with their Congressperson or Senator on May 1st. For some it was a first time experience and a bit intimidating. Stephanie Vance, a former Congressional aide who is now part of "Advanced Consulting: The Advocacy Gurus," presented an excellent workshop for newcomers. Her energetic style and insider's knowledge of the legislative process were just what the novice needed to build confidence and develop advocacy skills. Many thanks to the ALA Washington Office for including such an inspirational and practical workshop for new library advocates.
Ms. Vance began the workshop with a fun quiz about politics and legislation. The audience was immediately engaged, and even the most veteran members were caught checking the Constitution for facts.
She then asked participants to focus on three basic principles:
- What do you want?
- Whom do you ask?
- How do you follow up?
- What Do You Want?
You've come all the way to Washington so you must want something, right? Perhaps you want to make certain your legislator knows the key issues affecting libraries or perhaps you have specific concerns regarding changes in copyright legislation or LSTA funding? Be certain to ask for something specific.
Know the Issues and Be Prepared!
The ALA Washington Office does a wonderful job of creating one-page briefing sheets on key issues and related legislation. If you're coming to briefing day you will receive these in your briefing day packet, but you can also find them on the ALA web site at: http://www.ala.org/washoff.
From the Washington Office's main page go to the "Link to Issues" list and pick your topic. Current issues include: Appropriations FY2002, LSTA reauthorization, copyright, database protection, E-government, ESEA, and E-rate. Read the briefs, talking points, and updates to become familiar with the core issues and bills that have been introduced. Also prepare a local information packet about your library and stress what you do for the constituents of the district. Give the member or the aide a packet that highlights key issues but doesn't overwhelm.
Ms. Vance gave several good examples of knowing the facts and stating your case. Take LSTA for example. This year the library community would like to see an increase in LSTA funding. The target amount is $350 million dollars. LSTA will also be up for reauthorization in 2002. Since formulas haven't been revised since the 1970's, the library community would like to see a new $500 million base.
It's important to know the difference between the activities surrounding the reauthorization of LSTA and the FY2002 appropriations requests. Use the bill number (if known) when speaking to staffers or members of Congress. At one point during a luncheon one member of Congress had heard the $350 million LSTA request so many times he joked, "Okay, we got it; we're slow ." Find out if the bill has been introduced but needs cosponsors. Maybe your Senator can become a cosponsor. Find out if similar legislation has been introduced in the other chamber. If not, ask your Congressperson to introduce companion legislation.
Be prepared to respond to late breaking news. Several of us had been tracking the NCLIS and GAO reports regarding possible changes in the federal depository library program for months. Until the last moment, we were uncertain if and when legislation would be introduced. The only real news had been the recent appropriations figures listed in the Bush Administration's budget. When we arrived in DC, Lynne Bradley of the Office of Government Relations had prepared a late breaking alert about the E-Government bill to be announced by Senators Lieberman and Burns on May 1_st at 2:30 p.m. That meant reading the issue brief, going to Lynne's briefings, and quickly shifting schedules to make certain several of us could attend the press conference.
Even though a bill number had not been assigned at the time of the announcement, we could find out the basic principles of the bill because the Washington office had seen it and offered comments. We also knew which library groups had offered their support, and ALA President Nancy Kranich expressed some of these thoughts at the press briefing. Even Senator Lieberman described the legislation as a work in progress-a good sign that inp_ut could still be offered. [Update: bill number is S. 803.]
Whom Do You Ask? (or, How to Make the Most of 15 Minutes?)
Sometimes you are fortunate to be able to get 5-15 minutes with the Congressman or Senator, but other times you may be meeting with an aide. Ms. Vance demonstrated just how valuable 15 minutes are in the day of a member of Congress. She showed an actual schedule which began at 6:30 a.m. and ended around 11:00 p.m. A typical day may include committee meetings, meetings with staff, called votes (which can come at any time), luncheons, meetings with constituents, receptions, more briefings, and travel to and from the district. Fifteen minutes is a luxury, so make the most of your time.
To demonstrate how your visit with your legislator might go, Ms. Vance conducted several role-play situations. The first was with an "experienced advocate" and showed that the legislator can still throw even the most experienced lobbyist a question that derails the limited time. In this case, she challenged the advocate with the controversial topic of "filtering." Be prepared to handle controversial topics with diplomacy, and subtly refocus the conversation back to your issue.
She then asked for a "novice" to come up. Brimming with overconfidence, the individual soon found that she would literally have to follow the Congresswoman around as she dashed from her office to the Capitol to cast a vote. The "novice" was a good sport as she jogged around the room simulating the trip to the Capitol, and emphasizing that you may have to pitch your concerns without having the legislator's undivided attention. The key is to remain composed. Hit the high points. Drive home the bill number (any dollar figures you know) and remain focused while jogging down the sidewalk in 80-degree heat in heels.
Three short moments from my first time lobbying (or, make the most of brief encounters)
I wanted to let Congressman X know that I care about full funding for the Federal Depository Library Program especially since the FDLP has faced budget cuts in the last few years. On three separate occasions I pitched the idea. During the morning I attended an award's ceremony and posed for a picture with the Congressman and other constituents of his District. After the photo, I simply leaned over and said, "Congratulations on the Friends' award. We'd love to explore a possible visit to Old Dominion University when you're in the district." His response was, "Old Dominion is one of my favorite places." (the 30-second meeting)
Later at the Virginia delegates' luncheon, I got another opportunity to speak with the Congressman. Colleagues from other libraries in the area who knew the Congressman well were very generous in introducing me and opening a discussion about cooperative efforts in the area. Another small seed was planted to highlight federal depository issues including networking. (the 2-minute follow-up)
Just as the Congressman and his aide were leaving the luncheon, I had a final opportunity to say again what a pleasure it was to meet him and present him with my packet. It contained several of the ALA issue briefs, one of which supports full funding of the FDLP and my own short summary of depository activities at Old Dominion University. I mentioned that I knew he has lots to read already, but perhaps his aide would have time to review the packet. He smiled and said, "I know, YOU want full funding of the FDLP." (the final 3-minute follow-up)
How to Follow-Up?
Ms. Vance emphasized the importance of sending the aide or member of Congress a thank-you note. She stressed that she actually kept a stack of notes that she received for several years. We are all busy; but when someone sends us a thank-you for our attention or time, we appreciate it and so will the Congressperson. It's one more way to distinguish your issue from a mountain of requests by a variety of constituents. We may think and focus on library concerns, but that's just one more topic for a busy member.
Arrange a Visit in the District (or, you don't always need to go to DC)
Sometimes a legislator is more relaxed when visiting in the district and has an opportunity to see your institution at work. Members of Congress want to know how your program serves their constituents. What difference does your library make in the district? What services do you offer? Share genuine stories of success. Ms. Vance offered a valuable tip in planning a visit by explaining that there are scheduled working days in the district that are posted on the Senate and House web sites. She recommended you use Thomas' web site (http://thomas.loc.gov) to check for the times when your representative will be at home and available to discuss local needs.
After checking the working days in the district on Thomas, contact the scheduling aide and set up a site visit for the member. Try to make this an event that might also acknowledge the legislator's contributions/interests by creating an award and presenting it during the visit. We all like to receive recognition for our efforts. A brief ceremony creates an opportunity for a press event and adds a structured setting for stating your case. Remember you're asking for help, so offer appropriate thanks. The next time you contact the office they will remember you.
Following the award, a tour of the facility or a demonstration of a project or event helps tie the need to the desired results. Show off your children's reading program, demonstrate new computers that allow patrons to download information from Census 2000, show an exhibit of rare books and local history. Remind the member of Congress about the citizens who visited for tax forms or information on legislation affecting Social Security beanefits.
If you want to be a bit creative and have more time, also ask if the member of Congress would like to contribute a brief statement or article for your newsletter. Or, better yet, ask your representative if you can prepare a brief statement that the member can read into the Congressional Record.
Advanced Consulting: The Advocacy Gurus' web site:
Don't worry if you missed the workshop on briefing day. Ms. Vance has posted her presentation on the web at http://advancedco.net.
Key resources to view on the web site include:Advocacy ChecklistAdvocacy FAQsAdvocacy TutorialE-newsletter
Make certain to review the advocacy checklist and frequently asked questions before you meet with your legislator. Some of the key tips from the checklist include:
- Background research
- Message development
- General message delivery
- Effective meetings
- Effective written communications
- Effective phone calls
- Following up
Knowing the do's and don'ts will help your visit be more productive and will eliminate the stress of first-time efforts.
Ms. Vance has also written a book, Government by the People: How to Communicate with Congress (1999), for new advocates that helps explain the process in simple and clear terms. Ordering information is available on the web site. You can view the table of contents at http://advancedco.net/book.htm. The checklist tips posted on the web site were taken from Ms. Vance's book.
When I reflected on my day in Washington, I could easily empathize with my Congressman. I had gotten up at 5 a.m., left my hotel at 7 a.m. to catch a shuttle from the hotel to the metro, ridden the metro from Fairfax to Union Station, run several blocks to the Hart Building to see my representative receive an award, attended more briefings, walked to the Rayburn Building for a luncheon and more informal meetings with members of Congress and their aides, walked to the Dirksen Building for the press conference where Senators Lieberman and Burns announced the E-Government legislation, sat in on more meetings, caught the train to Richmond, drove from Richmond to Norfolk, and rolled into my driveway around 11:45 p.m. I was tired, my head was spinning, and I had only been trying to pitch three ideas to a few members of Congress. They, on the other hand, had met with numerous groups on a variety of issues and would do it all again the next day. It was time for the thank-you notes and a pair of comfortable shoes.