In-person meetings with Members and staff can be one of the most effective forms of advocacy. You can set up a meeting in either the Member’s office in Washington, DC or the office located in their home district. When deciding whether to meet in Washington or locally, you should consider the following:
- Timing: Congress periodically breaks for recess so Members can return to their districts (for example, Congress is generally not in session in August or in the weeks surrounding federal holidays). Recess periods are an excellent time for a meeting with your Member in your home district.
- Your Message: Congressional staff in Washington work on specific sets of legislative issues (such as science, health, education, or defense). Members of Congress rely on policy staff members to keep them up-to-date on developments in their issue areas. In district offices, staff members do not generally handle a legislative portfolio. Instead they are experts on what is going on in the district—what constituents are concerned about and the local impact of federal programs—and relay this information to the Senator or Representative. Thus, if you are meeting to discuss upcoming legislation, such as appropriations for the National Science Foundation, you’re best off meeting with Washington, DC staff. If you would like to discuss, for example, the impacts of federal research and development funding on the local economy, you may want to request a meeting in the district.
If you are still not sure about the best course of action, ask COSSA! In addition, if you choose to come to Washington, consider reaching out to COSSA and/or your professional association, who can help you schedule your meeting, provide educational materials to bring with you, and perhaps even accompany you on the meeting.
Requesting a Meeting
Once you have decided to meet with your elected officials, the next step is to request an in-person meeting by calling the Member’s Washington or district office (the telephone numbers will be on the Member’s website). You can make your request over the phone or ask for the name and contact information of the scheduler and request a meeting by email.
While it is always worth trying to schedule a meeting with the Member, you will more likely be scheduled to meet with a staff member—do not be discouraged! Congressional staff are crucial to keeping the Member informed about the topics in their portfolio and may actually be more knowledgeable about the particulars of the issue you have come to discuss. In Washington, request to meet with the staff member who handles “science issues.” For meetings in the district, request to meet with the district director.
Below is a template email for requesting a meeting in Washington. You can also use it as a script to request a meeting over the phone.
Dear Ms. Smith [relevant staff member or scheduler],
I am a constituent and professor of political science at COSSA University. I will be in Washington on March 10 and would like to set up a meeting with Representative Jones or a staff member who handles science and research issues to discuss the importance of federal support for social and behavioral science research in Virginia.
I can be reached at this email address or 555-555-5555. Thank you for your consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.
Before Your Meeting
Do a little background research on the Member whose office you are visiting. You should know what committees they serve on and how they have voted on legislation you care about. A quick Google search or perusal of the Member’s website can give you important information on where the Member’s priorities lie. If you are meeting with a member of the staff, you may be able to find information about their responsibilities or background (such as where they went to school), although this information is not always readily available.
Make sure you know ahead of time what you plan to say. Prepare and organize any written materials you plan to leave behind. COSSA’s Resources page has a number of “one-pagers” that you can use during your visit (e.g. state-specific fact sheets on social and behavioral science funding). You may want to put them in a folder so the staff member can keep everything together after you have left.
During Your Meeting: Tips for Success
- BE ON TIME, AND BE PATIENT.
It’s important to arrive on time for your meeting, but schedules on the Hill are tight and constantly changing, so try to be understanding if your meeting starts late.
- BRING PLENTY OF BUSINESS CARDS.
You may be asked to provide one when you check in at the front desk, swap cards with the staff member you are meeting with, and give one to any interns or new staff members who may be sitting in on the meeting.
- SAY THANK YOU.
Begin the meeting by thanking the Congressperson or staff member for taking the time to meet with you. Congressional offices, especially in DC, are incredibly busy; acknowledging this is always appreciated.
- FEEL FREE TO TAKE NOTES.
You may want to jot down points you’d like to follow up on later as well as any questions you couldn’t answer off the top of your head, as long as the Member or staffer would not rather speak “off the record.”
- BE BRIEF AND FOCUSED.
Most meetings with staff are quite short and last 15 to 20 minutes (although some may go as long as an hour). Meetings with Members can be even shorter, as quick as five minutes. It is important to be concise and to stay on message. Quickly explain who you are and why you’re interested in this issue. Provide some very brief background in support of your position and end with your “ask” (i.e., what action you would like the Member to take).
- ENGAGE IN A DIALOGUE.
Try not to let your meeting turn into a lecture. Instead aim to have a conversation with the staffer or Member you are meeting with. Give them room to jump in, and ask them questions. Also ask if they have any questions for you.
- USE PERSONAL ANECDOTES.
Telling a story from your own personal experience is generally more powerful—and more memorable—than reciting generic talking points or hypotheticals. Stories that come firsthand from constituents generally carry more weight with Members.
- BE INFORMED, BUT DON’T BE AFRAID TO SAY “I DON’T KNOW.”
Make sure you have researched the issue you are planning to discuss and be prepared to answer questions about the arguments for and against it. However, if you are asked a question you are not sure how to answer, it is perfectly appropriate to say “I don’t know” and offer to follow up later.
- BE POLITE.
Even if you strongly disagree with the Member’s position, it is important to be professional and respectful. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions and deserves basic courtesy. Further, you never know when you might need the Member’s help in the future. Focus on building a relationship that can be sustained, regardless of your respective positions.
- AVOID JARGON.
Assume you are speaking to someone unfamiliar with the details of the topic you are discussing, especially if you are describing scientific research. Try not to use acronyms without explaining what they are. They will let you know their level of familiarity with an issue, at which time you can elevate the conversation.
- OFFER TO BE A RESOURCE.
Let the staff member or legislator know that you are willing to answer questions their office may have in the future.
- SAY THANK YOU!
End the meeting the way it began – by thanking them for their time and thoughtful consideration of your requests.
After Your Meeting: How to Follow Up
Always send a follow-up email to anyone with whom you have met. Thank them for taking the time to meet and provide any additional information or answers to questions that came up during the meeting. The goal of these emails is not just to be polite; you want to establish a line of communication between you and the Member or staffer in hopes that they will reach out to you and draw on your expertise in the future.
Find organic ways to stay in touch. No one wants to receive frequent unsolicited emails, but you could send updates about your research from time to time if they seemed interested, or forward the occasional press release or news story highlighting research in their district. Local connections are always appreciated.
Besides following up directly with the Member or their staff, get in touch with COSSA and tell us how your meeting went. COSSA can always follow up with the office later to reinforce your message.