What going to the Hill is really like

Before I went to lobby for women’s rights and health care, I did training with the coalition of groups that cooperated to put together the entire effort. The training was focused on having groups attend scheduled visits with lawmakers or their policy staff members, and on working with undecided or opposing politicians at least as much as with those who already support the position.

When I got there, I was handed a packet with a list of three lawmakers in my state who consistently vote pro-choice and advised that I could individually to go to their offices and thank them for their efforts. I thought this approach was not the best use of my effort, and when I asked if there was something more active I could do, the NARAL folks helped me make a list of Republican members of the House in my state so that I could go to their offices.

I still ended up doing “drop-in” visits to offices, not scheduled visits with lawmakers or staff members, and I was still working on my own, but I thought it was a better plan. I got the impression that volunteers who signed up through Planned Parenthood had some different organization going on; all the ones I saw were working in groups, at least, and I think some of them had appointments. I’m not faulting NARAL’s work, I’m just wondering what I could have done differently to be more active in the lobbying work.

Anyway, the training had mentioned drop-in visits but didn’t really focus on them. Here’s what I wish they’d told me, and what you can expect if you ever decide to drop in on your legislator’s offices – it’s easier than you might think, actually.

You go into the Congressional office building (not the Capitol; there are a number of office buildings arranged around it) and walk through a metal detector, but the setup is not as strict as airline security. (No pat-downs.) Then you’ll find the office, which is usually behind an impressive and old-looking wooden door with a sign on it or next to it. The door is usually shut, but you don’t need to knock; just let yourself in. There will be a reception desk of some sort near the door, and the person sitting behind it will be a young person, possibly of early college age, who doesn’t know much more about what’s going on there than you do. You have a few minutes to talk to that person, and then you leave.

The training reviewed talking points with us, but I found on the first couple visits that in spite of that plus all my individual preparation, I didn’t have a ready-to-deliver introduction or opening. So I sat down and figured one out for myself.

What I ended up with was a very brief introduction about how I urged the legislator to support women’s reproductive rights and health care, and then I would ask if there was a staff member available to talk to me. It was a very busy day on the Hill, so there were few, but even if that didn’t get me a face-to-face, it generally got the receptionist to pull out a piece of paper and write down a short bit of what I had to say, as well as instructing me to sign the guestbook.

My final complaint about the preparation was that we should have had handouts. Several receptionists would have been happy to take printed material to pass on along with my contact information, but I hadn’t been supplied with any, so they and I generally compromised on them jotting down a few notes, but prepared material would have been much more effective.

Finally, I can’t say this enough: Practice. Practice until you can say your opening while whistling Dixie in your head or wondering who told that young man that a lime-green bowtie was a good idea for anyone, ever, because it’ll happen. Stop outside the door and repeat to yourself the title and name of the lawmaker you’re going to be talking about. (“Senator, um, Smith, I mean, Bowles, um…well, your boss, anyway, he or she really ought to…” doesn’t quite cut it.)

Practice fragments of your talking points, or sentences, over and over again so that you have them on the tip of your tongue. That way you don’t sound like a Chatty Cathy doll who can only say one thing, but you stay on-message even while extemporizing. You can fit your message to the time available, because you have to stay responsive and adaptable all the time. I didn’t have to do much responding to counterarguments, but that’s another place to practice until your brain can go faster than your mouth, which is harder than it sounds.

I hope that helps anyone who is thinking about trying to engage in a little active democracy. If you have other tips, I’d love to hear them.