Wednesday, January 21, 2015

State of the Union 2015 and Why It's Important

Last night, President Obama delivered his second-to-last State of the Union.  As you’re probably aware, the president delivers an address to Congress at the beginning of each new year detailing his perception of how life in America has been progressing and areas in which he sees room for improvement.  This speech precedes the release of the President’s formal budget proposal each year.

Watch the 2015 State of the Union here.
Read a transcript of the 2015 State of the Union here.
Watch the Republican Party’s official response to the State of the Union here.

In his speech, the President focused on what he termed “middle class economics.”  Essentially, this is the idea that if people work hard and are given equal opportunities, our economy thrives.  He addressed numerous issues including childcare, education, workers’ rights, energy and the environment, jobs, infrastructure, healthcare, veterans, race relations, and foreign policy.  He stressed the importance of compromise and overcoming partisan gridlock in Congress.

Yet, thinking about the context of last night’s speech, there are a few important factors to keep in mind.  First of all, Obama is now a lame duck president.  This means that he no longer has to worry about running for reelection, nor does he really need to concern himself with the politics surrounding midterm elections.  For this reason, he has little to lose politically based on the assertions he makes, so last night we saw him speak emphatically about his stance on some fairly divisive issues like immigration reform, health insurance, and Wall Street regulation.  He even threatened to veto legislation he believes would be a step backwards in these areas.   Furthermore, it’s important to keep in mind that Republicans took control of the House of Representatives last November, giving them control of both chambers of Congress.  The State of the Union is meant as a guide to give Congress a sense of the President’s priorities, but it is in no way legally binding.  Because Republicans now hold the majority, it is unlikely they will follow many of the recommendations he laid out.

This year, President Obama has projected February 2nd, 2015 as the date he will present his formal budget for funding federal programs to Congress.  Again, this budget is not legally binding and a republican Congress is unlikely to pay a great deal of attention to it when crafting legislation for appropriations.  It will, however, provide further insight into the Administration’s priorities for the President’s last two years in office, and you can expect many of those priorities to mirror the ones laid out in his speech last night.

So, you’re probably wondering why this really matters to you.  As an advocate, think about the issue or issues you care about.  Did Obama mention them in his speech last night?  Did he speak favorably about them?  Are they divisive issues?  Answering these questions will give you an idea of how you will need to talk to both democratic and republican Members of Congress about your issues.  While their individual stances will be more nuanced, it is likely that, at least on the surface, democrats will agree with the President’s agenda and Republicans will oppose it.  Understanding the state of our Union, as it stands, can help you craft your personal legislative advocacy plan for the final years of Obama’s presidency.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Communicating with the Capitol: Be Grateful

We've all been in situations where we've worked really hard on something and just want that hard work to be recognized, right?  I know that if I put a lot of time and effort into a project or an idea and it goes entirely unnoticed, I’ll find myself questioning why I worked so hard in the first place.

On the Hill, Members of Congress and their staff are constantly bombarded with requests from all sides, to the point where they can’t possibly meet everyone’s demands.  For this reason, if an office follows through on something you've been requesting, it’s incredibly important to make note of what they've done for you and thank them for it.  It may seem self-evident, but gratitude goes a long way with staff members who spend much of their day trying to assuage cranky and frustrated constituents.  Therefore, if an office takes the time to work with you on an issue, introduce a bill you’ve been advocating for, set up a hearing, or something similar, make sure you recognize the work they have done and show how much you appreciate their willingness to help.

Because of the somewhat constant stream of whining Hill staffers endure on a daily basis, I can pretty much guarantee that simply saying thank you and recognizing their hard work will go a long way.  They certainly won't question their decision to work with you and they will be that much more likely to help you out in the future!

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Communicating with the Capitol: How to Effectively Use Social Media

These days, it seems like success is often measured by followers on Twitter or likes on Facebook.  Seriously, how good do you feel when your tweet gets retweeted or someone comments on that picture you posted over the weekend?

Social media has been the cool new thing for a while now, and it seems like it’s here to stay.  When it comes to communicating with your representatives, it can provide unique opportunities in two primary ways.

1.   Staying up-to-date:  Social media is a great way to figure out where your Members of Congress are and what they’re up to.  They’ll post about events they’re attending, when they’ll be back in the state or district, and what issues they’re working on.  This is a great way to stay in the loop about the latest news and possibly even find out about events like town hall meetings you may want to attend.
2.   Voicing your opinion on a current and specific issue:  Because social media is constantly changing and updating to reflect trending topics, it’s a great way to voice your opinion on issues or legislation that are being discussed in real time.  Unlike letters, which need to go through a screening process that takes nearly two weeks, social media posts can reach the office instantly.  Many Congressional offices have added a staff position to their press team with the sole responsibility of monitoring and responding to social media.  With the creation of these positions, it means that offices will definitely see your comments, and if those comments are constructive and thoughtful, they will likely even respond.  Social media makes quick back-and-forth dialogue possible in a way that previous communication methods (letters, phone calls, and even emails) have not.  And while you may not always get a response, the more active you are on social media (in a polite, respectful, and thoughtful way!!), the more likely the staff will recognize your name and pay attention to what you have to say.

(Added bonus:  Several social media press staffers on the Hill have told me that their bosses, aka Members of Congress, love social media and are constantly looking at their own pages.  For other types of constituent correspondence, such as email and phone calls, they simply get briefings from staff about the important ones at the end of the week.  Thus, being an active social media poster makes it that much more likely your legislator will see your opinion first hand!).

One other tip!  As I’ve said before, Members of Congress want to hear from their constituents.  Social media makes it difficult to tell who is a constituent and who is not.  If you have any way of identifying yourself as a constituent (i.e. providing you town name or zip code in a post), the office is much more likely to pay attention to your post and even respond!

Social media is a great way to actively engage with legislators.  It in no way replaces the importance of emails and phone calls, but it can certainly enhance your engagement and provide effective alternatives for getting your voice heard in Congress!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Communicating with the Capitol: The Power of Constituency

We all want superpowers, right?  Personally, I would like to be able to teleport.  Or fly.  Basically, find some cool way of avoiding my walk home every night in the freezing cold.

What if I told you that you do have a superpower?  I’ll admit, it may not be quite as flashy as flying or teleporting or being invisible, but seriously, you do.  It’s the power of constituency.  Sounds cool, right?

Basically, Members of Congress live and breathe by their constituents.  As a constituent, you elected your two Senators and your Representative because you thought they would do a good job representing your interests.  If they don’t end up meeting your expectations, you, as a constituent, can help vote them out.  That’s pretty powerful.

And as a result, Members of Congress really do care about what you, as a constituent, think!  They want to know your opinion on issues, how issues directly affect you, and what policies you’d like them to focus on.  That way, they can work to best serve your interests and thereby win over your vote again when it comes time for reelection.

On the other hand, many offices either have policies that they will only meet with constituents or that there must be some sort of tie to the district or state if a non-constituent is requesting a meeting.  This makes sense given the onslaught of meeting offices receive in a given week.  They have to prioritize their constituents.

So whenever you are communicating with the Congress, whether you’re trying to set up a face-to-face meeting or just corresponding with the legislative staff about an issue you care about, make sure you include your address, or at least your zip code.  If they can see right away that you are in their district or state, they are so much more likely to act on your issue.  Seriously, I hear this time and again from schedulers as we set up meeting after meeting on Capitol Hill.

So next time you have an opinion on an issue and you want to ask your Member of Congress to act, make sure you use your superpower.  Tell them explicitly that you’re a constituent.  Your superpower can help make sure your legislators hear what you have to say!

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Let’s Get Social!

Some of you may have seen the slightly embarrassing yet surprisingly catchy train wreck that is “Let’s Get Social,” a viral video of a performance at the Social Media Marketing World conference in which a woman sings about the importance of getting “social with social media.” If you haven't seen it yet, you should and you can watch it here. With wonderful lyrics like “Here’s some photos from my life/My cat, my kids, some bacon” and “We’re looking for the secret/Of Facebook’s Holy Grail/We try to keep from paying/That leads to hashtag #fail,” it is in and of itself just that, a hashtag #fail.

However, amongst the terrible lyrics and awkward rap bridge they actually make some good points about the importance of social media. The message here is that you can’t just post to social media and expect results—you also have to interact with social media. Follow people who care about the same issues. Retweet them and like and share their Facebook posts. Find the hashtags that are popular for your issue area and use them in your own tweets. Turn yourself into a valuable resource that people are going to want to follow and then start a discourse with your followers to make them feel involved. If you build a trust with your followers, you will have a much greater impact in the world of social media.

The most important thing I get from this video is that it’s important to have fun with your social media. Yes the video is ridiculous, but look at how many views it has! Sometimes the social media world can feel like one big competition for attention, so you need to find a way to rise to the top. This video might go a little too far onto the ridiculous side of the spectrum, but if you can find a balance between professionalism and fun then you’ll enjoy a level of success that you haven’t reached before.

Now, everyone say it with me …

Let’s get social!!

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Communicating with the Capitol: Know Who You're Talking To

Congressional staffers have told us repeatedly how much it drives them nuts when advocates come into meetings and ask them to support a bill their boss has already co-sponsored.  When this or something similar happens, they say they often tune out because the advocate seems uninformed and couldn’t even take the time to do some basic research.  If you want your meeting to be effective, you need to put in a little work ahead of time.  I know you’re busy, so I’m not saying you need to go read the books they’ve written or all their past speeches or anything, but there are a few things you should do before your meetings to make sure you are well-prepared.  Trust me, staffers remember the meetings they have with informed constituents.  Here are some quick tips.

  • Read the member’s bio:  This takes at most 10 minutes.  Understanding where they come from and how they got into politics can provide great opportunities for you to personally connect with the office.  Say, for instance, you are a small business owner and as you’re reading your Senator’s bio, you find out that she worked for a small business for years before running for the Senate.  That would be a great way to connect with the office early on.  The more connecting lines you can draw, the more likely you are to be remembered. 
  • Know their issues:  Now that you’ve read the bio, it’s time to dig a little deeper.  Nearly all Members of Congress have either an “Issues” or “Legislation” tab or something similar where you can find out their priorities.  I know you are going to find this shocking, but most Members of Congress come to the Hill because they are truly passionate about an issue or two and they really want to make a difference with that issue.  They’re not all greedy, corrupt, power hungry Frank Underwood clones (at least not when they first get to DC).  You may just not always agree with the issues they’re passionate about.  If you can find ways to frame your asks around key issues they care about, they are far more likely to follow through and act on your issue.  Get creative here.  For instance, say one of their priority issues is education but you’re advocating for legislation to help caregivers for people with long-term disabilities.  Maybe you could demonstrate how improving caregiving allows people with disabilities to attain higher levels of education.  That’s just an example, but if on the surface your issue seems unrelated to their priorities, think outside the box a little and I’ll bet you can come up with some connection. 
  •  Figure out which committees they’re on:  Determining the committees and subcommittees a Member serves on can give you insight into some other issues their office focuses on.  If they serve as a chair or a ranking member on a committee, they likely have staff dedicated solely to that committee’s work.  If they are on a committee under which your issue falls, the staff is likely to be better informed about your issue, which in turn will better help you make your case.  If they’re not on a committee that relates to your issue, that by no means makes a meeting pointless, but it’s good to figure that information out ahead of time so you’re not blindsided if they say something like they work on your issue all the time in their committee. 
  •  Check out bills and votes:  As I mentioned earlier, one of the complaints we hear most often is that a Member of Congress will have already co-sponsored the bill you are asking them to co-sponsor.  If you are advocating for a specific piece of legislation, make sure you know who the co-sponsors are, what exactly the bill does, and why you support it. provides useful brief bill summaries so you don’t have to go in and read the full text of the legislation.  If your Member of Congress has co-sponsored your bill, you can still go in and thank him or her.  This will again show the office that you are well-informed and will also demonstrate that you care about and are following the actions the Member is taking on your issue.

Doing your research ahead of time doesn’t have to take days, but it can mean the difference between seeing progress on your issue and having a staffer walk out of a meeting with you and never think about your issue again.  Show the Member or their staff why you care about your issue, but also show them why they should care too.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Thanksgiving: The Recipe for a Perfect Congressional Meeting

It’s that time of year again.  Thanksgiving is an annual event where families come together, share stories, grow closer and stuff their face. Minus the stuffing their face part, there are a lot of parallels to be drawn between Thanksgiving and Advocacy Days. Advocacy Days are an annual event where advocates come together, share their stories on Capitol Hill, and build relationships with Members of Congress and their staff. Furthermore, the various components of Thanksgiving dinner can be used as a metaphor for the perfect congressional meeting (yes, these are the things I think about). Here’s a breakdown of how you can use everyone’s favorite holiday meal as a guideline for your upcoming Advocacy Day:

1.       The turkey is the “ask”. It wouldn’t be Thanksgiving if we didn’t start with the turkey (or tofurky for you vegetarians out there). The turkey is the highlight of the dinner, the centerpiece that makes it Thanksgiving. If you take the turkey out of the equation, the rest of the dinner is almost pointless. This is why the turkey is just like the “ask” in your congressional meeting. You can have the most productive, friendly, informative meeting, but if you leave that office without asking your Member of Congress to do something specific then you have just wasted your time. Legislators and their staff have a lot on their plate, including taking time to meet with constituents like you, so unless you ask them to do something tactile they will likely shake your hand as you leave and then forget all about you.
2.       The stuffing is your story. The turkey might be the most important part of the meal, but the stuffing is always the fan favorite. At least in my household, the stuffing is the most enjoyed part of the meal and is usually what everyone leaves the table still talking about. That’s why the stuffing is like your personal story. Members of Congress and their staff want to meet with their constituents for one reason—they want to hear your personal story and how you are affected by what they do as a legislator. Leaving out your personal story would be like leaving out the stuffing in Thanksgiving dinner—the staffer will feel underwhelmed and unfulfilled.
3.       The green beans are your hard facts. Green beans certainly aren’t as popular as stuffing when it comes to Thanksgiving dinner. That said, they are a necessary supplement that help to complete the meal. This is why green beans are like the hard facts of your congressional meeting. Not everyone loves eating their veggies, and not every staffer loves dealing with figures and percentages. Still, they need to be included in your meeting as a way of backing up whatever it is you are asking for. Using numbers effectively to show how a certain policy will affect you, your business or a large number of people in their district will help you to drive home the “ask.”
4.       The pumpkin pie is your follow up. Hours have passed, the football game is on, you’ve taken a little tryptophan nap, and you’re almost fully digested. By now you’ve almost forgotten that you ate this huge, delicious dinner—but wait! Suddenly it’s time for pumpkin pie, a reminder that Thanksgiving isn’t over yet. Pumpkin pie is like the follow up in a congressional meeting—you want to make sure the meeting isn’t forgotten without any action taken. It’s important to continue to build your relationship with a congressional office throughout the year, and you can start by following up a day or two after your meeting with a “thank you.” In the weeks ahead, make sure to send over any information you didn’t have in the meeting that you said you would get back to them on and remind them of your “ask.” This is a good foundation for maintaining contact throughout the year and developing that relationship further. Congressional staff always appreciate follow up, and I always appreciate pumpkin pie.

Have a happy and safe Thanksgiving/Advocacy Day preparation meal.