Mastering the Congressional Meeting: Lessons from My Time in Congress

Thanks to TechCongress, I was able to spend the summer as a fellow in the office of Senator Wyden, working with the Senator’s technology team (these are my views, and not that of Senator Wyden or his staff).  Even though I only spent a couple months in the halls of Congress, I sat in many meetings with individuals and groups bringing important issues to the attention of the office. While some meetings were productive and informative, many were far less effective than they could be.

It is not uncommon to hear interest groups, technologists, and activists cite their congressional offices meeting numbers as a measurement of success.  This metric, undoubtedly impressive to others in their organization or the general public, fundamentally fails to recognize that not all conversations have equal impact.  When trying to get your voice heard by the legislative branch, it is important to make the most of each opportunity.

Before delving into the ways to make the most of a meeting opportunity with a congressional staffer, it is important to recall the general way congressional offices work.  Each office is essentially a small business: the Representative or Senator acting as a CEO, and various aides and staffers filling the roles of managers and employees. As such, it is unlikely that you will get to meet with the Senator or Representative at all, and if you do, it will only be for a few minutes. Elected officials have packed schedules - filled with hearings in multiple committees, press conferences, debate on the floor, and briefings from their staff. They just don’t have the luxury of spending 30-60 minutes in individual constituent or advocacy group meetings. As such, with a few rare exceptions, if you have a 30 minute meeting scheduled with a congressional office, most, if not all of it will be spent talking to a staffer, who will distill the essence of your conversation and take it to their boss.

Unlike normal small businesses which do one or two things, congressional offices are required to work on virtually every imaginable topic and cannot arbitrarily hire additional staff — Senate personal offices must make do with a staff of a couple dozen people (which vary based on the size of the state and temporary staff, like fellows), while House personal offices operate with about 5 people in their DC office.  No matter an office’s internal structure and processes, limited staff numbers makes staffer time a scarce resource, and since a handful of people cannot possibly be experts on every topic, many staff will have wide portfolios, in which they are unlikely to have deep knowledge of every area for which they are responsible.

Thus, it is important to use your meeting time with a staffer efficiently and maximize the chances that your message eventually translates into tangible action on the part of the office.  There is no secret handshake, but below are a few important thoughts to keep in mind when planning a meeting. While they may seem mundate or border on the obvious, I witnessed plenty of meetings that would have been more productive had the outside groups followed this advice.

Come into the room with a specific ask: This is by far the most important piece of advice I can give, and the majority of meetings fail to do it.  Ask the office to take some specific action.  Below are some examples of phrases that are both common and a likely indicator that you don’t have a sufficiently specific request:

  • “I want to make sure that my group can be a resource to you as things develop”

  • “I’m just here to check-in and let you know what we’ve been working on”

And now, some things that will turn the meeting into an opportunity for real action:

  • “Senator X. recently introduced bill Y that does Z. It would be great if your boss signed on to it”

  • “We’d like you to send an oversight letter to government agency X or company Y, asking questions A, B, and C.”

Without asking for a specific action, the burden to discover the policy solution to a problem you raise falls to the well-intentioned staffer who is time-strapped and likely less knowledgeable on this particular topic. And even if you do request an action, your chance of success will be higher if you are able to provide specifics. Don’t like the language in a particular paragraph of a particular bill? Do you have specific text you think would solve the problem? Suggest it.

Vague requests that do not include specific, actionable asks and that require significant staff time to research may be destined to languish in an ever-growing, high-effort, low-priority pile from which it may never emerge.

Start small: If the Congressional office doesn’t have any history of working on a particular issue before, your first ask should be small and self contained. Ideally, it should ask for something that is common sense, and if successful, will result in positive press for the Senator or Representative. Your goal should be to demonstrate to the office that it is possible to achieve positive change on your issue and that doing so will lead to continued positive press for their boss. Start small, get a small win, and then rinse and repeat.

Don’t overwhelm them with tech/science terminology: This is particularly important advice for scientists and technologists. You are speaking to someone who likely doesn’t have an advanced degree in your field, and possibly didn’t take a single undergraduate class on the topic. Using unnecessary acronyms and buzzwords will be counter-productive. Focus on communicating the important concepts related to your field, at least those necessary for the meeting, in terms that anyone can understand. Treating the meeting like a graduate school lecture will lose your audience’s attention.

Double check your facts and figures: Make sure the data that you provide offices is accurate. If you give them information that is bad, even unintentionally, it may ruin your credibility, and they are less likely to turn to you for help in the future. If you don’t know the answer to a question, say so, and offer to research it, rather than making an educated guess.

Staffers are smart and capable, but may focus on something else: Unless you are approaching the office to discuss an issue that is already well established in the national conversation, there is likely no staffer in the office who is well-versed on the issue, let alone focuses exclusively on your issue.  The staffer across the table likely manages one or more broad topic areas, but may not know the ins-and-outs of the topic you came to discuss. That said, they were hired because they are smart enough to understand new things quickly. Be willing to let them lead the conversation if they want to, as answering their questions will help them contextualize your message into their office’s priorities.

With these thoughts in mind, you can maximize the effectiveness of each of your congressional meetings.  Best of luck!