This post originally appeared on Progressive Primer: http://theprogressiveprimer.blogspot.com/2016/03/the-founding-fathers-wanted-me-to-do.html
We all know the first amendment provides for freedom of religion, speech, assembly, and an unencumbered press. But did you know along with your right to get mouthy on social media about a rally you’re having on the zanadu religion, you also have a right to lobby? Yeah, you heard that right.
“Congress shall make no law … abridging … the right of the people … to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Our founding fathers wanted you to bring your ideas, your frustrations, your earmarks to them for debate.
It seems like a closed-door process. Well, actually, if you ask an average elected official they’ll likely tell you they want more contact from their constituents, not less. Calls, visits, emails tell them what the voters are thinking; they’re not mind-readers and can rarely afford non-campaign related polls. And more and more groups proclaiming to represent the citizenry are disconnected from their members (see certain public employee union members who vote opposite a union endorsement).
So politicians actually do want to hear from you. Here’s the catch. In order to be able to advance your ideas they need to be well…organized. So what does The Ask look like?
First, do your homework. Is your representative the lead sponsor of the earmark you’re pushing? Is she on the record in the newspaper opposing the bill you’re meeting on? Make sure you’re not sabotaging yourself by meeting with the enemy or embarrassing yourself by asking her to support something she’s a well-known champion of.
Next, get on their schedule. In the Massachusetts Legislature, your elected will be in “the building” usually Tues-Thursday and in-district Monday and Friday. Call to confirm the meeting and, for pity’s sake, if you’re running late, call and let them know. (They, on the other hand have de facto permission to be as late as they want.) Don’t be afraid to meet with an aide if they cancel last minute (it happens all the time). They’re the ones who do most of the work anyway.
Have your swag ready to go. In politics, we call this a “one pager.” And I do mean one. Politicians and their aides get trash barrels full of requests and that’s where a lot of it ends up if it’s not concise. Trust me, if they want more, they’ll ask for it. Things to include:
- Program name, line-item/bill number
- If you’re asking them to co-sponsor something, don’t forget to name the lead sponsor (and their aide, and the amendment number)! And while you’re at it, include your name and contact info!
- Bill/funding history of your ask
- If what you’re proposing is new, information about who and how many people who will be impacted (preferably people in their district), how it will work, and a little more meat on the bones. Still one page front and back, though.
Perfect your elevator speech. If your legislator doesn’t understand what you want in less than five minutes, chances are you don’t either. Keep it high level. Tell them what it is, what problem it’s fixing (or what gain it’s creating), why it’s important to his/her district, and–if it’s funding– how it will be sustained.
Finally, follow-up, follow-up, follow-up. A week or two after your meeting, make a pleasant call to their aide asking if their boss has had a chance to consider your request or take action they promised in the meeting.
After all that, thank them. Thank their aide. Thank them publicly, if possible. Thank them, because often all they hear are complaints and it’s a thankless job.
*Side note: While the concept of an actual citizen’s petition is indoctrinated into all sorts of legislative bodies, it isn’t always the most effective vehicle for achieving goals.
Stefanie Coxe is the Principal of Nexus Werx LLC, where she teaches businesses, non-profits, and civic groups how to lobby. Visit www.nexuswerx.com for more information.