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10 Tips on Visiting a Congressman
William A. Estrada, Esq.,
Director of Federal Relations
March 8, 2018
Communicating with a member of Congress is not the same as it once was.
In the famous 1939 movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, young Senator Jefferson Smith (played by the incomparable Jimmy Stewart), after arriving on Capitol Hill, goes to his office which consists of two rooms, two filing cabinets, and one moody secretary. That was all.
In 2018, a U.S. Representative’s office will hold at least 10–15 staff members. A senior Representative may have more than 20 people working for him or her. A Senator will have at least 30 people working for him or her, and some will have more than 50.
However, there is one thing that has certainly not changed since the first Continental Congress met.
Even in this day of email and social media, a personal visit to a congressional office is still the most effective way to make your voice heard on a political topic. No matter what the Bill Gateses or Mark Zuckerbergs of the world have to say about it, sitting down at a table, in a face-to-face conversation, remains the most effective form of communication.
When a federal legislative issue which may affect homeschoolers is raised, volunteers can visit representatives and senators in Washington, D.C. Paired with calls to legislators from homeschoolers across the nation, this method has proven successful time and time again.
Below are a tips for a successful lobbying visit. Many of these were suggested by congressional staffers and are based on HSLDA’s collective lobbying experience.
- Make appointments.
- Be flexible.
- Wear appropriate attire.
- Have brief material on hand.
- Use illustrations.
- Take older children.
- Write a thank you letter.
- Dealing with staffers, remember...
- Most importantly, be positive!
Be sure you have a specific goal in mind before you make an appointment with a member of Congress. Be familiar with what you are going to talk about, and if possible, who will be coming with you, who you are going to meet with, etc. Also, try to keep notes on each meeting in order to record the congressman’s position, what the meeting accomplished, and what follow-up is necessary.
Never just walk into an office and expect to have a meeting. Like you, members of Congress and their staff want to be prepared.
Don’t be surprised if you are unable to schedule a meeting with a member of Congress. Most of the time a staff member will meet with you—senators and representatives are very busy. If you are a constituent, there is a much better chance that you will be able to meet with your member of Congress directly.
When making an appointment, explain that you represent many homeschoolers in your district or state. HSLDA’s Federal Relations department is happy to help you with this, including by providing you with the number of HSLDA members in your state.
Try to avoid scheduling back-to-back meetings with two different members of Congress, because their schedules can be very tight and they may frequently be late. Be patient and expect delays. Also, consult a congressional directory to determine the location of offices in order to give yourself sufficient time to walk to the next appointment.
Wearing appropriate clothing adds to your credibility. Men should always wear a coat and tie. Ladies should wear similar professional attire. Remember, you’re representing 1.7 million homeschoolers. The impression you leave makes a difference!
Short handouts that explain the issues you are discussing can be very helpful to the member of Congress, who can simply give them to an aide when the meeting is over and have him or her follow up on the issue.
In order for the member of Congress or staffer to remember your visit, you need to use personal stories and creative illustrations when you explain your position on an issue (HSLDA’s Federal Relations department can help you develop these).
Bringing your children with you can help leave a positive impression—and it’s very educational! Make sure children are properly dressed, attentive, and quiet during the meeting. Your children may be called upon to answer some questions on the lobbying issue or about homeschooling, so it’s good for them to be familiar enough with the issue to articulate basic points. However, if your children are having a bad day or not yet able to sit quietly through a meeting, it may be better to leave them home. (Note: In light of the unpredictability of infants, we suggest that you do not bring infants into Congressional offices during meetings.)
After your meeting, send a follow-up letter to the member of Congress or staffer going over the main points of the meeting and thanking him or her for taking the time to meet with you.
If you meet with a congressional staff member, keep a few things in mind:
a. An average staffer is only 25 years old.
b. Staffers are generally well educated.
c. Most are single with no children. Often they can’t personally relate to homeschooling. Personal illustrations and personal experiences are very important tools.
Even if the member of Congress you are visiting with is hostile to homeschooling, do not expect the visit to be a failure. Your goal is to be a friendly face demonstrating the success of homeschooling. Your visit, coupled with your cheerfulness and passion for homeschooling, may be the start of a changed mind.
Updated March 8, 2018