How to Lobby Your Congressperson

By Ying Lee

While I served as Legislative Director for Congresswoman Barbara Lee in her Washington office, I worked with Ann Ginger on several Meiklejohn projects. She found the collaboration fruitful and asked that I share my thoughts with you on how constituents may better use their Congressional representatives’ offices.

Although my 16 years of work with Congressman Dellums and then with Barbara Lee dealt with our Oakland, Berkeley, and Albany, California districts I believe that my experience reflects that of most congressional assistants and aides.

Each member of the House has at least two offices. One in D.C., which is known as the “personal” office, and one or more “district” offices. Staff in D.C. are generally “legislative” assistants, while district staff are “administrative” assistants. D.C. staff deal with legislation; district staff deal primarily with constituent advocacy ë both in terms of problems with federal agencies (Medicare, Social Security, Veterans, IRS, etc.) and inquiries and opinion regarding current events and legislation. District staff are also assigned issue areas: housing, banking, foreign affairs, taxes, etc., and serve as liaison between constituents and the D.C. office.

To make your opinion known:
A simple call to the district office is as effective as calling the D.C. office and saves you a long-distance call. If you want a response, ask for it and follow up. E-mail and “snail” mail also work but remember that staff are always overworked and e-mail and snail mail take greater resources to respond to appropriately.

If you want more activity on an issue: 
Call the local office to get the name of the legislative aid who works on that issue. Call him/her and give a brief description of your issue and need (very brief) and say that you will follow it up with e-mail or snail mail.

If you have a long-standing issue (as Palestinians/Israel, Nuclear Ignition Facility, or the U.N.). 
Find out from activists what has been done on the issue and then ask to talk to the district aid who liaison on that issue. A personal visit is an option. On complex matters I would recommend this procedure: an introductory phone call to be followed up by mail or by a personal visit with efficient documentation.

If you have a constituency: 
You can either ask for a courtesy visit with a staff member or with the Congresswoman. It is important to be clear and up front as to the purpose of your visit.

Representatives need to know the strength of your troops and your organization.

On conventional lobbying:
There are 435 members of the House. Each representative is technically, and realistically, only responsible for the constituents in her district. Writing, calling, etc., to other members is wasteful of your efforts and the staff of that office. Each personal office mail-phone handler has strict instructions to refer an out-of-district request or opinion to her/his representative. Sometimes such mail is just put into the circular file as are phone messages. There is too much work and an out of district person has no vote for the boss.

Be strategic:

  • To influence other members of the House, reach your contacts in that member’s district and have them communicate with their representative.
  • Do not sign on to Working Assets lobbying efforts. Rep. Dellums and Lee received thousands of WA letters in support of issues that they had supported on the record for years. This took many hours and much stationery and first class postage to respond to each letter. Political effect: Zilch (except for great irritation toward WA).
  • Constituents and activists love petitions. I believe they are useless. I was conscientious and saved them in limited office space only to toss them out in the biannual cleanup. So much work, so much paper, but meaningless. At least collect one buck for each signature — then you can do more.
  • Constituents, with judicious sense, can work closely with legislative staff on particular issues: to introduce information, legislation, support from other members on issues. If there is interest in this, we can address it in another issue of this newsletter.