March 15, 2010
Job opportunities in this issue's classifieds include a public transit agency president/CEO and executive director of a national program!
Making the Most of Your Capitol Hill Visits: Easy to Follow Tips and Techniques
Question: How can APTA members participating in the 2010 Legislative Conference make the most of their time in Washington?
Answer: They can state their case for increased federal investment in public transportation by visiting their members of Congress or their staff.
To help them achieve maximum efficiency in these meetings, here are some tips and techniques culled from people who have significant longtime experience “in the trenches.”
* Concentrate on members of Congress from your home state. Legislative advocacy is most effective when done by constituents. Start with these representatives—regardless of their committee assignments—then, if you have time, meet with other decision-making members who do not depend on your vote.
* Present concrete examples. Local stories and statistics are of paramount importance when speaking to a legislator. Real-life stories of how public transit benefits people in your community and state will help members of Congress and their staffs understand your perspective. For example, you can describe how service improvements will allow a faster commute for constituents, or how additional 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 remember to 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 waste your time, hoping the staffer makes time for you. 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 reasonable but some, at times, touchy. Just be prepared to answer honestly and fairly.
* Be specific. Don’t just say: “Our transit agency needs more money.” Instead, provide details of specific projects. 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 Capitol Hill, become 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.
* 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.
* Be on time. Arrive promptly for your appointment, adding in time to clear security.
* 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 these 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 or hard to read. Think user-friendly, with limited text, charts, and graphs.
* Anticipate questions—and prepare answers. Before you set foot in a 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. Develop your message (talking points). Research the legislator’s past votes or statements on the issue, the position of the legislator’s party, and his or her committee assignments.
* Be aware of counter-arguments; be ready for what you don’t know. If you don’t know the answer to a question, admit it and promise to find out the answer and provide it quickly.
* Remember that the process is a dialogue. Don’t do all the talking. Ask directly and politely for the policymaker’s views and position on the issue and what he or she plans to do. Do not let the policymaker or staffer distract you with other topics; gently steer the conversation back to your issue. Avoid responding to subjects raised that veer from your key points.
* Don’t mistakenly become too comfortable. You are a constituent, so your member of Congress and his or her staff will treat you with courtesy and respect—even if they disagree with your position. Don't mistake this respect for agreement; make sure you know where the legislator stands on the issue.
* Be patient. Realize that building a relationship takes time.
* Stay focused. Remain on point when making your presentation. Have a message and stick to it—and be as polite as possible.
* Follow up. Take the time to send a thank-you note after your visit; courtesy can make a difference. Don’t be in touch only when you want something from your representatives, and remember to thank them additionally when they take a position you agree with.
* Keep the lines of communication open. Even if the representative does not agree with your cause, offer that individual the opportunity to enter into a dialogue with you and hear your perspective. Your contact with the legislator or staffer should go beyond the actual visit: calling, writing letters, and e-mailing should also be part of the process.