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March 2, 2009

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IN DEPTH: LEGISLATIVE ISSUES

Visiting Capitol Hill: What You Should Know for Successful Advocacy

How can APTA’s citizen lobbyists make the most of their time in Washington during the Legislative Conference? Here are just a few suggestions from people who have significant experience “in the trenches.”

* Concentrate on members of Congress from your home state. “All politics is local,” as the late House Speaker Tip O’Neill said. Legislators—regardless of committee assignments—will be most receptive to hearing from their voting constituents. Make those individuals your first port of call. If you have time, add in other decision-making members who do not depend on your vote.

* Personalize your visit. Explain the direct benefits your project will have to residents of the legislator’s district and state. For example, describe how service improvements will allow a faster commute for constituents, or how added station accessibility will make transit more available to more residents. Business members can stress the number of jobs this project will create in the district and state. Just tell your story.

* Talk to the right person. Identify the staff member responsible for transportation issues before the visit—and make your appointment in advance. By looking forward, you won’t have to waste your time, hoping the staffer can make room for you on the schedule. Also, it is to your advantage to speak with the person most likely to have a background in your specific issue or project.

* Be honest. This is the highest priority—you can’t be effective if people don’t trust you. Competent Congressional staffers will frequently ask an array of questions—all fair but some touchy. Just be prepared to answer honestly and fairly. If the staffer raises any concerns, respond immediately by stating your commitment to dealing with them.

* Be specific. Don’t just say: “Our transit agency needs more money.” Instead, provide details of specific ready-to-go projects that will be funded from the stimulus package. Tell them what you need, then listen to what they say they can provide. To make such a conversation work, you must know and understand what they’re talking about, which leads to . . .

* Do your homework. Before going to the Hill, make sure you are familiar with the issues. You’ll reach maximum effectiveness if you are fluent not only with your agency’s situation but also with what Congress can do to help find a solution. In other words, the more you know, the better off you’ll be.

* Anticipate questions—and prepare answers. Before you set foot in one Congressional office, take the time back home to prepare for the visit by thinking through your questions and answers, even rehearsing your approach with a colleague.

* Keep the visit brief and focused. Your visit to a Congressional office will be most effective if you speak simply yet specifically, saying: “This is who I am, this is what my organization needs, and here are the facts.” Most veteran advocates recommend staying no more than five minutes. At the start of the meeting, thank the legislator (or staffer) for his or her previous support. Bring concise, to-the-point materials to distribute in the office before you leave. Nothing voluminous. Nothing hard to read. Think user-friendly, with limited text, charts, and graphs.

* Be patient. Building a relationship takes time.

* Be on time. Arrive promptly for your appointment.

* Stay focused. Stay on point when making your presentation.

* Understand the legislator’s position. A member of Congress has to deal with many competing interests and requests for funding and assistance. Even the best legislator has to balance these requests and determine which ones take precedence. Recognize these political realities when making a request.

* Follow up. Take the time to send a thank-you note after your visit. Courtesy can make a difference.


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