This selection from AdVanced Consulting's Advocacy Classroom provides expert tips for reaching your Congress member. Learn what a congressional office can and cannot (or should not) do for you, what staff members do, and how best to deal with them.
Is My Congressional Office the Best Place to Start?
Before deciding to call, write, or visit your member of Congress to share your views on policy issues you care about, consider whether the member of Congress can actually help you with your problem.
What a Congressional Office Can Do for You
These are the main activities that a congressional office can undertake on your behalf:
Send a letter to a federal agency about a concern you may have with a particular agency action, or in general reference to a grant application you have made.
Send a letter to an influential member of Congress, such as a Committee chair or a member of the leadership, about a particular issue you may care about.
Facilitate a meeting between you and federal agency officials to discuss an agency action you may have concerns about.
Help answer your questions and solve your problems with individual government programs, such as Social Security and Medicaid.
Help you find government reports and request copies of reports from various government research organizations, such as the Congressional Research Service (CRS).
Introduce legislation to change an existing federal law or create a new one.
Cosponsor existing legislation (introduced by someone else) to change a law. (Note, though that House members cannot cosponsor Senate legislation, and vice versa.)
Vote for or against legislation being considered by the committee he or she serves on.
Vote for or against legislation being considered on the House or Senate floor.
What a Congressional Office Cannot or Should Not Do for You
Your member of Congress is elected to represent your interests and to provide his or her constituents with assistance in dealing with other branches of the federal government. However, federal/state jurisdictional issues, ethics rules, work-load limitations, and plain old common sense limits the actions your congressional office can take on your behalf.
Your congressional office cannot guarantee a government contract, grant, or other government action that favors your business. This is illegal and unethical. Members of Congress generally shy away from any implication that they are using their influence to extract money from a federal agency for a constituent.
Some constituents were moving their carry-out restaurant to a new location. They were concerned because the new location, unlike the old location, did not have the advantage of having a Post Office next door. Seems that the Post Office generates a lot of foot traffic. So they asked their congressional office to arrange to move the Post Office so that it would be near their new location. For a congressional office to act on this request would be highly unethical as well as impractical. Clearly, this is an "extreme" example. But congressional offices frequently receive requests for specific favorable government actions.
Your congressional office cannot provide legal or tax advice. Your congressional office cannot help you specific legal or tax questions, such as whether you can claim certain deductions, or the detailed legal implications of real estate transactions. These questions should be referred to a lawyer, an accountant, or the IRS.
Your congressional office cannot do your homework. Your congressional office cannot draft your term paper for you, or send you detailed government reports on a moment's notice.
On one occasion, I received a call from a constituent who wanted all the background information we might have from a variety of sources on a very controversial forestry issue having to do with building roads, although she wasn't quite sure what it was about, or when a vote on it might have occurred. And she wanted the information that day via fax for her class that evening. Our office simply could not help her because she had not given us enough notice. These types of request are made about once a week.
Your member of congress cannot cosponsor state legislation. Often, people will write asking their representative or senator to cosponsor or introduce legislation that is being considered at the State level. Members of Congress do not cosponsor, debate, vote on, or formally consider state legislation.
Your congressional office cannot unilaterally change a federal regulation. Members of Congress do not write the regulations that determine how new and existing federal programs will be implemented. That is the job of the federal agencies.
Your congressional office cannot provide detailed assistance on federal grants and loans. Strict ethics laws prohibit congressional offices from unduly influencing the grant-making process. The office can write a letter in support of a particular grant, but, under the ethics guidelines, is prohibited from doing the grant-seeker's work for them in terms of identifying and applying for grants.
Note on the House vs. Senate: Bill numbers that start with an "H" (for example, H.R. 1234; H.J. Res. 123, or H.Con.Res 123) are bills that were introduced in the House. Bill numbers that start with an "S" (for example, S.B. 1234 or S. Res. 1235) are bills that were introduced in the Senate. Members of the House do not cosponsor bills that are considered in the Senate and vice versa. Be sure that if you're looking for support for "H.R. 1234", for example, you are talking to your House representative.
Representatives and Their Staff
Staff: Who's Who in a Congressional Office
In addition to knowing about the Members, it's important to know something about the staff in an elected official's office.
District/State vs. Washington, DC, Staff
Members of Congress have at least two offices, one in Washington, DC, and one or more in their district or state. House members usually have one or two district offices, depending upon the geographical area they serve. Senate offices generally have two to five offices within the state, some of which may be staffed by only one person. Each office has a number of staff people with various responsibilities. The average House member has a total of 14 staff people (in DC and the district). In the Senate, the amount of funding available for staff positions varies depending on the population of the state. Senators from less populated states have an average of 31 staffers, while Senators from more-populated states have an average of 44. Communicating effectively with your representatives can hinge on reaching the right staff person.
Representatives and senators can structure their offices however they see fit. There are no formal rules about staff roles or titles. See the resources section for a breakdown of the traditional roles and titles of key staff members you are likely to find in most district/state and DC congressional offices.
The district/state office is a good first point of contact for most constituents. House members generally have from six to eight people located in the district. Senators usually have 10 to 15 staffers located in the state.
Caseworkers -- If you are looking for help on a problem concerning federal agencies (such as getting your social security check) ask for the caseworker who handles that issue (the social security caseworker, for example). District or state caseworkers are masters at maneuvering through the maze of the federal bureaucracy. Their expertise ranges from immigration to social security to veteran's benefits, and they spend most of their time solving the problems constituents encounter with the Federal Government. For example, a district/state caseworker can help you secure your veteran's benefits, or resolve immigration issues.
District/State Scheduler -- If you want to meet with the representative or senator in the district or state, or if you want to invite him/her to an event, ask for the district or state scheduler. This is the person who schedules the member's time when he or she is in the district or state. (Note that some offices handle all scheduling out of one office, usually the DC office, so you may be referred to the DC scheduler). Senate offices may have more than one person per office dealing with scheduling duties.
Field Representative -- If you want to meet with a district staff person to discuss a particular local issue, or if you want to invite someone from the district staff to a local event or meeting, ask for the field representative who handles your issue. Field representatives can also talk with you about federal issues that directly affect the district (disaster relief for your flooded neighborhood, for example) or actions of a federal agency on something that affects a local group of people or a community (as opposed to individual problems.
District/State Office Director -- This staffer oversees the operations of the district or state staff and is often the point person in the district office for highly sensitive local political issues. Constituents should ask for this person if they feel that their concerns are not being met by others in the office.
Washington, DC, Staff
Washington, DC, staff are less focused on casework and specific local issues and more focused on legislation. They are ready and willing to answer constituent's questions about specific legislative proposals. In general, if you want to express your opinion or learn the member's opinion on a particular federal issue that is broad in scope, call or write the Washington, DC office. You can also contact the district office, but in many cases your correspondence will be forwarded to Washington.
Staff Assistant -- Most House offices have one staff assistant. Most Senate offices have at least two. They handle the front desk duties, which include answering phones, greeting visitors, sorting mail, and coordinating tours. In many offices, these individuals will handle a few policy issues as well. If you are going to be traveling to Washington and want tickets to tour a government building, be sure to ask for the staff assistant/tours coordinator (in a few offices, these are different people), who can let you know what's available. Be sure to plan ahead for such requests, since tickets for some of the more popular tours are claimed months in advance, and each congressional office receives a limited supply. Buildings where tours are available include the Capitol, the White House, FBI headquarters, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, the Kennedy Center, and the Supreme Court. (In most cases, you can still tour these buildings without passes from you congressional office ahead of time, but you may have to wait in long lines.) You can also receive passes to view House and Senate floor debates.
DC Scheduler/Executive Assistant -- If you are going to be in Washington, DC and want to meet your representative or senator, contact the DC scheduler (who is sometimes called the Executive Assistant). Information on effective meetings is outlined in following chapters -- but here's the first rule. Do not be surprised or insulted if your representative or senator does not have time for a meeting. Schedulers receive dozens of meeting requests a day. Most House members are scheduled with back-to-back meetings and votes from about 8am to 9 or 10pm every weekday, and also have four to five hours of meetings both weekend days. There simply is not enough time in the day for a member of Congress to meet with everyone who requests a meeting. That said, if you live in the district or state that the representative or senator represents, and want to discuss a substantive policy issues, you always should be able to meet with someone on the staff. In fact, as noted below, meeting with the staff may, in many ways, be even more effective.
Legislative Assistant (LA) -- If you want to talk, either in person or on the phone, about a particular policy issue, ask for the legislative assistant who handles that issue. Legislative assistants handle the bulk of the policy work in a congressional office. A House office usually will have two to four LAs and a Senate office will have from three to as many as 12 (depending upon the state's population).
Legislative Director (LD) -- In some cases, the person who handles your issue may also be the legislative director who, in addition to handling policy issues, also oversees the legislative staff. There is usually just one legislative director in each congressional office.
Legislative Correspondent (LC) -- You may also may be referred to a legislative correspondent who, in addition to drafting letters in response to constituents' comments and questions, also generally handles a few legislative issues. Most House offices have one or two LC's. Senators have three to five, depending on their state's population.
Press Secretary/Spokesperson/Communications Director -- If you want to include something about the representative or senator's views in a newsletter, or have questions related to the press operations of the office, ask for the press secretary. This individual is responsible for fielding all calls from the media and is often the spokesperson for the office. House offices usually have one designated press person. Senate offices have two to five.
Chief of Staff (CoS)/Administrative Assistant (AA) -- The chief of staff or AA oversees the entire operation. The chief of staff may sometimes handle a few policy issues, but generally his or her time is spent managing the office.
Tips on Working with Congressional Staff
Talk to the Right Person -- Many people are under the mistaken impression that they should always try to communicate with the most senior staff person (the LD or the AA) in a congressional office. While having a positive relationship with senior staff can be helpful, it is best to communicate with the person in the office who handles the issues you care about, no matter what their position in the office.
Remember, Your Issue Is One of Many -- Congressional staff handle a bewildering array of issues. They simply cannot know about everything related to any of their issue areas. This is especially true for issues that are not directly related to the member's committee or legislative agenda. The purpose of any meeting with congressional staff and/or the member should be to share with them your views on issues you care about. If they aren't familiar with the issue, take that as a perfect opportunity to bring them up to speed!
Staff Contact Has Advantages Over Member Contact -- In many ways, working with congressional staff, rather than directly with the member, is to your advantage. Staff can take a little more time to delve in to a particular issue and gain a greater understanding of why what you're proposing is such a great idea. With a little work on your part, they can become advocates for your cause within the congressional office.
Institutional Memory in a Congressional Office Can Be Short -- It is rare to find the same staffer working on a particular issue in a member's office for longer than two years or so. When there is staff turnover, you will need to impart the history of your relationship with the office and your background in the policy issue. Be prepared to do so quickly and to supply supporting materials.Expect (and Appreciate) Youth -- Most congressional staffers are young, 25 or younger. The person you're meeting with may not look as if he or she is old enough to vote! Don't let that throw you. In most cases, staffers are bright and capable individuals who can be trusted to respond appropriately to your requests and deliver your message to your representative or senator.