Communicating With Congress: Personal Visits

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Publication date: 
5 May 1995

Swarming around the House and Senate office buildings every weekday
are citizens who have come to Capitol Hill to present their views
to Members of Congress and their staffs.  Although they come to
Washington for a variety of reasons, they all have one thing in
common: they have discovered that the best way to communicate with
a Member of Congress is by meeting him or her in person.

It is a common request to ask for an appointment with a member
and/or staff.  On many days there is a constant stream of visitors
to a congressional office.  Visiting with a member provides a
personal touch, an opportunity for questions, and immediate
feedback.  Here is how to plan a visit:

A general rule of thumb is that it is easier to get an appointment
with a representative than with a senator.  Arranging a meeting
with your own members will be much easier than with a
representative or senator who does not represent you.  If a member
is not available, ask for an appointment with the relevant
legislative assistant. 

Plan far ahead.  Members of Congress and their staffs are working
under crushing work loads this year.  Call the Capitol's
switchboard at 202-224-3121 and request a specific office.  Ask to
speak to the appointments scheduler, and briefly introduce yourself
(noting if you are a constituent), and describe the purpose of your
visit.   Call at least three or four weeks in advance.

Follow the correspondence guidelines in FYI #62 in planning your
presentation, citing relevant legislation (including bill number.)
Be ready to provide a brief nontechnical explanation of your topic
as appropriate, avoiding all abbreviations and jargon.  Allow time
for dialogue and questions.  Request (not demand) a specific
action.  Know the member's position on the issue; contact us for
assistance if needed.  Most appointments last around fifteen
minutes; less if they are a courtesy call.

If you are coming as a member of a group, decide on a spokesperson.
Agree on your presentation and strategy before you arrive.

Anticipate schedule changes!  An appointment planned months in
advance with a member can be changed or canceled because of
unanticipated committee or floor action.  Committee members can no
longer vote by proxy, which means they must be present when bills
are being marked-up.  A string of back-to-back votes on the floor
can keep a member away from his or her office.  In this case, a
staff assistant will handle the appointment.  These dedicated
assistants are often the most knowledgeable about legislation, and
can be very influential.

If appropriate, bring a "hands-on" visual aid.  If you have been
working on a new product and if it is easily handled, bring it
along.  A few well selected hand-outs may be useful, but resist the
temptation to bring along stacks of materials.  In all probability
they will never be read.  A one-page summary of your position with
an attached business card to present at the end of your appointment
will be welcomed.

End your appointment on time.  Follow-up your visit with a thank
you letter in which you reiterate your main points, and offer your
assistance as needed.

If a legislative assistant is present during your appointment, ask
for their business card.  This individual can serve as your primary
source of contact for subsequent telephone calls and informal

Arrange, if possible, your appointment with the member while they
are at their home office.  Your meeting will occur in a far more
relaxed environment away from committee and floor deliberations and
other distractions.  Offer to arrange a visit to your facility or
institution where the member can get a much clearer impression of
what federal taxpayers are helping to support! 

Although meeting with a Member of Congress may at first glance seem
to be an anxiety-producing event -- relax!  Most members
participate in hundreds of these appointments every year, and they
are typically very good at making people feel welcomed and
comfortable.  After all, if you are their constituent, they are
interested in gaining your future support.

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