Friday, March 22, 2013

Congress – Coming Soon to a District Near You

For many of us, the word “recess” conjures up images of monkey bars, school yard fights and dodge ball.  In Washington, D.C., this term is used to describe the time period during which legislators return to their districts and states.  Sure, for some this still means school yard fights.  But for the most part the term “recess” is a misnomer.  In fact, legislators and their staff are often working harder in their communities than they might in Washington, D.C. (yes, I know.  Not hard to imagine).

Why is this important now?  The weeks of March 25th and April 1st mark the spring “constituent work week” or “district work period.”  You can be sure the D.C.-types are working hard (instead of hardly working) through one or more of the following three options:

  • Go to a town hall meeting:  Check your legislators’ Facebook pages, Tweets or even take the old-fashioned approach and call their offices to find out where they’ll be in the districts during the next few weeks.  You can find local contact information through their web pages at and  Not sure who represents you in the House?  Go to the House website for an address look-up tool.  As long as you know what state you live in, it should be relatively easy to find your Senators.
  • Let them know about your events:  Are you involved in a community spring fair?  A fundraiser for your cause? A meeting?  A conference? Even just a regular old work day? Whatever you’ve got going on in the next few weeks, if you think creatively you might find something you can invite your legislator or staff person to see or do.  Don’t reinvent the advocacy wheel.  Use your existing events to your advantage.
  • Utilize media effectively:  When policymakers are back home you can be sure they’re listening to the local TV and radio news shows as well as reading the smaller circulation community papers . Now’s the time to call in to drive time shows with your thoughtful (not insulting) comments on what’s happening in D.C., write letters to the editor (these generally have a short turnaround time), or find an opportunity to connect with local TV news reporters.  The more timely your story, the more likely you’ll be to capture attention, both of the community and your legislators.
The point is, you don’t have to come to Washington, D.C. to make a difference.  If you want to be sure your elected representatives are working, not brawling, take advantage of the “recess” to deliver your message.  They need to know how policy issues impact the people they represent – and this is the time to not just tell them, but show them as well.

***The following article was written by Stephanie Vance, The Advocacy Guru. Follow her on Twitter.

Monday, March 18, 2013

What Members of Congress Do All Day and Night

The Congressional Management Foundation recently released a thought-provoking report on Life in Congress from the perspective of Members of Congress.  This survey of legislators may surprise many citizens, even those who are sure legislators and staff sit around all day doing nothing but figuring out new ways to irritate the American people.  Highlights include:

·         They spend the majority of their time in D.C. on legislative policy work and constituent services:  In fact, these activities take up fifty-two percent of their time while in the capitol.  Campaigning, on the other hand, takes up 17%.  If you don’t believe that the substantive work is more important than campaigning, try calling your legislator’s office, explaining you’re a constituent and asking for a few minutes of a staff person’s time to discuss the policy issues you care about.  You’ll get that time, particularly if you’re polite. They may not always agree with you, but they’ll listen.

·         They spend an average of 40 weekends per year in their districts:  These are those infamous “recesses” or “district work periods” that everyone thinks are vacations.  They aren’t.  They are opportunities for constituents to connect with legislators at town halls and through district meetings.   There’s a two week work period coming up the weeks of March 25th and April 1st.  You can make a difference by contacting legislative offices this week to ask when they’ll be having a town hall or community meeting in the district.  Then take the time to go.

·         The vast majority believe they are performing a public service and are invested in their work:  Why would you stay in a job where hardly anyone likes you and it’s impossible to get anything done despite the excessively long hours?  For legislators it’s because they believe in what they’re doing.  In fact, they believe so much that in many cases they are unable to give up principles they hold dear.  Take a minute to look up the bills they’ve introduced at to learn a little more about what they care about.  You’ll be surprised.

I’m not naive enough to believe everyone will be convinced by this study.  Many citizens may agree with one commenter who asked:

“[a]m I supposed to be impressed? If I had an employee who put in so many hours and accopmlished [sic] so little of value I would fire tham [sic].”

Before you get on board with that sentiment, let’s try to be fair.  If I had a job where I had to get 270 people with vastly different views to agree with me before I could get anything done, I’d leave.  Yet legislators stay because they believe that they are representing the views of their constituents -- and with incumbent re-election rates consistently in the 90th percentile range, it appears that many are.  Constituents support their Congressperson because he or she reflects the values of the district they represent.  It’s all those other people who are the problem.   That’s the nature of representative democracy.

If we’re going to make our way out of the mire of our current partisan political environment, perhaps the message from citizens should be “let’s all unbend a little,” not “you’re all jerks who never listen.”  It can only help.

***The Following article was written by Stephanie Vance, The Advocacy Guru. Follow her on Twitter.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Budgets, Budgets Everywhere

It’s that time of year again – daffodils, pollen and, you guessed it, federal budgets.  Three proposals were released this week, one from the House, one from the Senate and one from the Congressional Progressive Caucus.  Not surprisingly, they all have very, very, VERY different perspectives.   You can view the hundreds of pages of details at the following sites:

Rep. Ryan (House Republican Leadership)
Sen. Murray (Senate Democratic Leadership)
Congressional Progressive Caucus:

But Wait!

Before you get too into the specifics (including the hyperbole of the specifics), take a look at this past blog post on “The Five Things Advocates Need to Know About the Budget Process (   These include:
  • Understanding the overall picture of the Federal government. Here’s a pet peeve: polls suggest that most Americans believe reducing or eliminating foreign aid will go a long way toward solving our budget problems. In truth, they make up about ½ of 1%. We can shake the couch cushions in DC and get more cash than that.
  • Learning about the difference between the Presidential budget process and the Congressional budget process
  • Knowing the difference between “budgets,” “authorizations” and “appropriations.
  • Understanding discretionary vs. non-discretionary spending
  • Finally, and most important, how to make a difference on the issues that matter to you
It’s easy to get mired in the details – but frankly, it’s not always the best use of everyone’s time.  If you can focus on what really matters you’ll be much less frustrated – and will be able to enjoy the coming Spring more. Except for the pollen part.

***The above article was written by Stephanie Vance, The Advocacy Guru. Follow her on Twitter