Congressional Advocacy 101:
How to Educate Your Lawmaker for Beginners!
For 15 years I have walked the halls of Congress. I did not take a class or even receive any helpful tips before embarking on this endeavor, but over time I acquired valuable experience on the protocol and inner workings of Congress. Looking back, it certainly would have been helpful if there had been a guidebook like “What to Expect When Meeting with a Congressional Member or Staffer” or “Capitol Hill for Dummies.” Time is of the essence for all MOAA members to start their advocacy, so rather than writing a book I will share my experiences with you in this article.
We elect our Senators and Representatives and, in turn, they should consider our points of view when they vote in Congress. They are very powerful people who are responsible for changing the law and, as their constituents, we can help influence how they vote to support or oppose a law. In addition to their role on the Hill, members meet often in their local offices allowing them to connect with their constituents and to listen to their views or learn about their issues. Congressional members hail from all walks of life and, prior to their prestigious role in Congress, they had “real jobs” like you and I--auctioneers, lawyers, schoolteachers, real estate agents, even practicing physicians. My experience on the Hill afforded me the opportunity to get to know them. I speak highly of their kindness and congeniality. They are willing to listen and help but will need facts and a good educator; that’s YOU!
How to get Started
Meet with your members of Congress, State Representatives, or their staffers. Make an appointment at their local office or take a trip to DC. For most members of Congress, their days are packed with meetings, hearings, and voting. Don’t be offended if you are scheduled to meet with their staffer instead of the member directly. Staffers have a significant influence in the modern Congress and serve as the eyes, and ears of the member. Also, most members of Congress have multiple staff members and many times, each staffer is assigned a different area of focus. For example, most offices have one staffer that handles only healthcare issues.
How to “Make Your Case”
When talking with a staffer and making your pitch, try to speak in layman’s terms and remember that they must turn around and share the issue or view with their supervisor or the member. If the issue is too complicated or hard to explain, they may not endorse the issue. Keep it as simple as possible and share top-line talking points for them to share with the member.
Although members of Congress were at one time just like us—they are now in a different role. They are public figures, in the press, or on TV. They are not bashful, so keep their egos in mind. Let having them support our issues also be about them (Gibson 2010). Let them see how the outcome of supporting our issue would positively impact, not only their constituents, but would be good for a press release, especially if they are up for re-election. If they supported other military and veteran bills in the past, thank them for their support.
Serve as a Resource/Issue Expert
It is also helpful to offer to serve as a resource for members and their staff pertaining to military and retiree and their family legislative issues. Share with them details about how these issues impact our military and retiree community or about some of the issues that you may deal with on a day-to-day, especially pertaining to our healthcare. Make it personal.
Let them know that you stand ready to offer any input or feedback on any other issues having to do with military or veterans’ issues. This lets them know that you perceive the relationship as a “two-way street.” This ensures that if another issue arises that concerns active duty servicemembers, retirees and their families, they are more likely to reach out to gain the perspective of a trusted constituent.
How does this help our MOAA members?
As a veteran service organization, we want the best for our active duty servicemembers, retirees, their families and including their survivors. In order to improve and or change existing legislation, we need the help of Congress to amend a proposed law or create a bill to change the law. The common goal for changing legislation is to help improve future benefits for our military and veterans and their families, including military survivors and their children.
Educating congress raises awareness of our MOAA organization, our legislative priorities, and the good we do to help improve the quality of life for millions. Meeting with your elected official (Representative, Senator) or their staff members can be a very rewarding and exhilarating experience, knowing that you are exercising your civic duty. Get involved today and help improve the quality of lives for millions!
Although some of our bills may have significant bi-partisan support, more is needed! Please reach out today--call or email--to your Representative and Senators to let them know why you support this bill and why it is needed for patients and practitioners alike. Access the MOAA Legislative Action Center to easily make your views known!
Dr. Vivianne Wersel
Western North Carolina MOAA Chapter – Legislative Committee-Chair
Citation: Gibson, J. (2010) Persuading Congress. Alexandria, VA: TheCapito.Net, Inc.