In order to have an effective meeting, you must consider the context. As Clair Seaver, Executive Assistant and Health Legislative Assistant (LA) to Rep. Blumenauer (D-OR) points out, "The Congressman's schedule is chaotic. It changes from minute to minute and meetings are sometimes postponed or canceled all together. When the meetings do occur as planned, the Congressman often has only a few minutes to focus on the discussion. Being able to make the point quickly and succinctly is very important. It’s particularly important to start the meeting with a request. That way, if you’re cut-off you’ve at least put the most important point out there." Your job is to bring order to chaos by following these few simple steps.
The Steps to an Effective Meeting
- Be cognizant of your representative’s time limitations. Don’t ask for more than one or two meetings per year. Sometimes your message is best delivered by phone or through a staff person.
- Decide where you want to meet (DC vs. the home office), after looking at the congressional calendar (see the House and Senate websites for links to the House and Senate calendars)
- Decide who should deliver your message. While those who run the program should always be involved in meetings with Congressional offices, some members may respond better to powerful figures in the community who support you. Above all, a real live constituent is absolutely critical.
- Limit the number of people you bring to the meeting. Most Congressional offices cannot fit more than five people.
- About one month before the proposed meeting time, fax the scheduler a meeting request, including a brief description of what you want to discuss and attendees. Meeting requests should always be made in writing, as the scheduler will have to pass the request along to several people before a decision is made. You can find phone, address, and e-mail information from the House and Senate websites at www.house.gov or www.senate.gov. Or, call the Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121 to be connected to your congressional office directly. Many offices do not post fax numbers on their websites..
- Follow-up with a phone call to the scheduler about one-week after sending a written request.
- Send a "one-pager" about your program before the meeting, nothing more. Most Members and staff and Members do not review materials before meetings – they expect YOU to brief them.
- Be very flexible – your meeting may take place standing up in the hallway, on the run to a vote, or may be cancelled with no warning. Members have to deal with sudden and dramatic shifts in their schedules on a daily basis. Unfortunately, this can affect the people they are planning to meet with.
- Make sure you know "who’s who" in the meeting, and take down the names of any staff people you may need to deal with in the future.
- Leave behind short, concise, and consistent information.
- Leave your information in a file folder with your organization’s name on the label.
- Follow up after the meeting on any requests you made.
What to Expect
Believe it or not, Congressional offices are tiny! Even the most senior legislative aides share tiny cubicles with other staff. The telephones ring constantly and there are usually at least five TVs blaring coverage of the day’s floor debate. It can be very hard to focus on your comments when you are meeting in what may seem like a war zone. This is why it is so important for you to be prepared and to have thought about your message beforehand. And don’t be surprised if the dress code is sometimes a bit casual, especially if you’re meeting with a staff person on a day when Congress is not in session. During recess periods, jeans and t-shirts are common. The rest of the time, more traditional business attire is the norm. For visitors, business attire is best.