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Vol. 39, No. 4

Tips for successful congressional visits

by Valerie Brown

Three years ago, the New Jersey State Bar Association participated for the first time with other state bar associations across the United States in ABA Day in Washington. It was a successful venture into the world of lobbying on a federal level and an advanced lesson in Federal Lobbying 101. We look forward to attending again this year, May 3 and 4. [Editor’s note: For more details, see this issue’s calendar of events.]

For a state-centered advocacy organization, federal lobbying raises questions of stretching scarce resources in people, time, and money. It requires us to weigh the tangible results against the effort level. What value does the bar association and its leadership place on developing strong ties with members of Congress, and how does this translate into concrete legislative results for the bar?

This article explains the steps bar leaders can take to make the most of their federal lobbying efforts—whether it is an occasional visit or a routine call on members of Congress. Some tips are applicable to government relations professionals, and others, to elected bar leaders or bar staff who may not be familiar with the process. But whatever your position, these pointers can help you get your bar’s message across.

The role of congressional staffers

Scheduling an appointment is a critical first step. With a large delegation of bar leaders, schedule the appointments in blocks of time to minimize moving back and forth between congressional office buildings. You will face a very ambitious schedule to accommodate meeting with every member of your congressional delegation. Keep in mind that entering each building on Capitol Hill requires extensive security, and you may be asked for identification. It is important to be prompt, if not early.

Even though meetings are scheduled with the member of Congress, you may be meeting with legislative staff because of changes in the member’s schedule or an unanticipated conflict or crucial floor vote. Meetings with staff should be taken seriously, as staff often strongly influences the decision makers—members of Congress—on legislative affairs. They have their finger on the details of your issues, and may have a vision of the larger picture, as well. Many staff members are very influential and may be of great help in relaying inside information and influencing the member of Congress.

Most members have an appointment scheduler, legislative assistant, and legislative director, as well as staff knowledgeable about narrow issues, such as Medicare and Medicaid or tort reform. The member of Congress is often pulled in many directions by competing issues and constituencies, though he or she may be generally aware of your issues.

Your state bar’s legislative counsel knows which staff person handles your issues and may be developing a working relationship with that person. Typically, Washington congressional staff handles substantive issues and state staff handles constituent requests. Generally, your state bar’s legislative counsel will handle the exchange of e-mails on issues and follow-up.

Who says what?

The government relations professional should prepare a report that summarizes lobbying priorities and outlines the background of each member of Congress. Bar leaders can then use this document to familiarize themselves with each member of Congress and the issues.

If the delegation is fairly sizable, the bar president should select a spokesperson for each issue. Generally, each person in the delegation is given responsibility to know his or her issue. In selecting the spokesperson, the bar president will select the person who is most knowledgeable on the issue, and will decide in advance who is going to say what.

Be sure you truly know the issue, as well as your bar’s position, if any. In trying to persuade a member of Congress about the state bar position on a bill, if possible, present new information to the member of Congress, particularly if the member’s views are opposed to the ABA and/or the bar. It is also important to know how the member voted on the issue. The ABA and/or the state bar legislative counsel will provide this information to you.

Begin by introducing yourself and your connection to the ABA, and recognizing any favorable vote on a bill, sponsorship, etc., by the member of Congress. You may wish to share a quick, sympathetic story to draw the relationship between the bar you represent, the ABA, and the member of Congress. It’s helpful to be positive with members of Congress and thank them for past support on key issues. Look for common ground, and don’t retreat from your position. Respect the member’s point of view, even if it differs from yours.

Then, bring the issue back to the local level. Tip O’Neill said, “All politics is local.” Most important, explain how the legislation affects lawyers, bar members, and the Congress member’s specific district. If possible, use local stories, regarding legal aid, for example. Make it easy for the member to vote your way.

Be brief, and do not cover more than three or four points. Decide in advance which issues are most critical to cover for each particular member of Congress. Don’t overstay your welcome, and keep your eye on the clock. Keep in mind that the average length of time with each member of Congress is between five and 10 minutes and can be cut short by a floor vote.

Though it’s tempting, do not spend too much time reminiscing. Discretion and good judgment are key here. It is useful to remind the member of Congress about relationships you may have with people in his or her district or people he or she is close to, but it would be inappropriate to talk about campaign events or contributions.

Closing the deal

In concluding the meeting and thanking the member of Congress, ask if there is something more you can provide to obtain the member’s support. Tell the member exactly what you would like him or her to do—perhaps sponsor legislation, write a letter to a committee, or join as a co-sponsor on technical amendments to a bill.

Members of Congress hear from many different constituencies on most issues and are careful to avoid making too many commitments. Don’t take generalized statements of interest or support to be true commitments on an issue. Be sure to close the deal before you leave. Get a commitment.

Leave behind a one-page executive summary setting forth your position on each issue so that the Congress member or staff can refer to it after you have gone. Make sure your name, address, telephone number, and other contact information are printed clearly on your business card and leave that with the member of Congress and/or staff.

Your state bar legislative counsel will write a letter to members of Congress, over the bar president’s signature, thanking the member and/or staff for their time and attention. The letter will contain any additional follow-up that may be needed.

Now’s the time

Don’t wait for a crisis to happen. Make sure that members of Congress from your state are aware of your issues well in advance of action that needs to be taken on a piece of legislation. Develop a working relationship now with members of Congress and their staff. In closing your meeting, offer to serve as an information resource, and invite members of Congress and their staff to join the bar or attend bar events and activities.

These strategic planning practices can pay off in forging solid relations between members of Congress and your bar association.


Fiction contest seeks entries

If you’ve been getting a lot of queries from members who love to write, here are some details to pass along.

SEAK Inc., a provider of continuing education and professional training for lawyers, is sponsoring the 5th Annual National Legal Fiction Writing Competition for Lawyers. The competition is open to any licensed attorney in the United States and its territories. Entries must be 2,500 words or less and in the legal fiction genre. Each author should submit only one entry. There is no fee to enter the competition, and authors will maintain the original copyright to their materials. A cash prize of $1,000 will be awarded to the first prize winner.

The deadline for submissions is June 30. For more information, contact Kevin J. Driscoll at (508) 548-4542, or [email protected].