I attended a conference this week. I am not going to say which — the names of the guilty will be protected (and I don’t
mean the conference organizers). By now, you may have seen the awkward elevator ride Senators John McCain & Rand Paul had recently. You probably also know that McCain ripped Paul for his filibuster to draw attention to the use of drones in the US. You can read more about that ride here. (Warning: I just saw a report that within the next few years, there may be as many as 30,000 flying over the US skies and I will write more about that.) Well, there were a number of Senators and Congresspeople slated to speak. When one went long, we received word that three others were waiting in their cars because they would not enter the building until the long winded colleague had left.
That is a true story. Things like this sit at the heart of the gridlock in Washington, DC.
Here’s my advice for lawmakers — stay in Washington and get to know your colleagues. I understand that you need to meet with your constituents and get their feedback. I understand a Congressional recess is really a”district work periods.” Some people argue to stay inside the beltway isolates Members from the “real America.” That is just not true.
There was a time when people here didn’t go home every weekend. They actually interacted with each other and got along better. A former colleague once explained his approach to union negotiations. He didn’t start with the big issues, he started by finding common ground on the smallest level. He would ask “Do you like coffee? Me, too. That’s something we have in common.” By getting to know your opponent, for lack of a better word, you can build trust and a relationship and compromise and progress become possible. We don’t have that here.
Here’s my advice for constituents. People in the other party or who have a different view are not evil. Don’t vilify them for be willing to work with people on the other side. Also, your voice carries a lot of weight. The best time to express your thoughts is election day but it doesn’t end there. If you feel strongly about an issue this is my advice as a former Hill staffer (Senate and House), reach out to YOUR Congressperson and Senators. If you call or write someone from a different state or district, you won’t get anywhere.
Correspondence from constituents is the bane of all staffers’ existence (we once bumped a ceiling tile and mail poured out — most of it was from three years prior to our mishap) because of the volume so you have to be patient when waiting for a response. If you write out your thoughts rather than sign a pre-made post card, it will mean more. It is a hard job to work up there (I still loved it) and hold fast to the belief that if our founding fathers were to base our form of government solely on the people who call and visit their Senators and Congresspeople, we would have a vastly different form of government. So, what I am trying to say is:
You have an issue that means a lot to you. You want to meet with someone to talk about it. Call ahead and ask to speak to the Legislative Assistant who deals with it. You can also look this up on Legistorm — a web site dedicated to letting the public see who the Congressional staffers are and how much money they make. You can search by the Member’s name. Contact them directly (House staffers’ email addresses are all firstname.lastname@example.org — Senate staffers are email@example.com — it is not always just their last name though, Senator Lindsay Graham‘s office staff are firstname.lastname@example.org).
Prepare what you want to say (or leave behind) and be brief. You have a short amount of time to get your point across so if you have 30 things you want done, that’s more than you will get (sorry). They meet with more people than you can imagine. And the saying “you catch more flies with honey than vinegar” holds true here. I am not saying you should suck up but being nice — firm if you are really unhappy — will go a long way. Making a staffer cry (happened to me) will not accomplish anything.
Yes, you technically pay their salary but using that as the reason they should meet with you will get you no where. If you live in a large state especially, your contribution to their salary is negligible.
Check to see if the Senator/Member has events with the public. A number of them host breakfasts or lunches for constituents visiting Washington, DC. Senator Dianne Feinstein holds breakfasts (and pays for them herself), for example.
Plan ahead. It’s August, you know you will be visiting in October. Contact them as soon as you know you are going.
Oh, and if you just want to visit the city but don’t have any legislative questions, contact all your representatives anyway. They have access to lots of tours and other things. I know people are in an uproar over the White House tours being cancelled (when I worked for a Senator, we received 15 tickets a week so there were never enough of those to go around) but there are other cool things to see and they can help with that.
And I would love your opinion about something. I am working on several in depth pieces on the Paul Ryan budget, the assault weapons ban (the original one and the one that was recently dropped from the Senate gun control bill) and how increased sentences do not deter crime. In doing my research, I have been sent a lot of materials so it is taking some time so I thought I would ask you which interests you the most.
If you have ideas for an order you would like to see these things or have any other suggestions, please leave them in the comments. I really love hearing from you and know how valuable your time is so thank you in advance for your help.