Building Relationships With Congressional Staff
When you approach a congressional office, a solid meeting with a staffer and a commitment to work together are often the goal. Here's how to start that relationship.
When you travel to Capitol Hill or log into Zoom for a meeting with a congressional office, more often than not the person facing you will not be a lawmaker. They will be a congressional staffer—and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Looking past the staff is a rookie mistake. While meeting directly with lawmakers is important, no legislator can stay completely current on the dozens of local, state and national issues that a congressional office has to deal with every year. That work is done by staff, many of whom have advanced degrees, years of experience and deep expertise.
That means the person who is most knowledgeable about your issue—and often in the best position to help—is usually a legislative assistant, legislative director or someone else with a staff title. A solid meeting with this staffer, and a commitment to work together, is almost always a win.
“People think that maybe a staff-level meeting is lesser, and it’s just not,” said Lea Sulkala, former chief of staff to a House Democrat who has also served as Senior Director for Federal Affairs at PhRMA and Manager of Government Relations at the American Heart Association.
Meeting With Impact
Capitol Canary’s latest eBook, Meeting With Impact, solicited expertise from high-level congressional staffers who spent years meeting with lobbyists, constituents, advocacy groups and government affairs professionals. We asked about what resonated, where organizations go wrong and what makes an effective meeting. The result is a report filled with insider perspective that can give your team an edge when meeting with congressional offices.
All of our experts say that learning to work with staff is an essential skill. The numbers also tell that story. For example, there are 435 voting members in the House of Representatives. There are almost 9,000 staffers working in the chamber, according to Capitol Canary legislative directory data. It is simply easier, and more likely, to get facetime with a staffer than with a member of Congress.
Setting meetings directly with lawmakers may also be getting more difficult generally. In Capitol Canary’s State of Government Affairs Survey, which queried almost 500 government affairs professionals about their experiences, one in three said it was harder to get time with a member of Congress.
“If you’re meeting with staff, they’re often the one making the recommendations to the member anyway,” said Sulkala, who is now a principal at Resolution Public Affairs. “And they may also be willing to elevate it. Often, they will say, ‘you know, my member would really like to talk to you about this. Let’s set up a second meeting.’”
Navigating a Congressional Office
While all of our experts underlined the importance of staff, they also added a significant caveat: you have to meet with the right staffer. All successful meetings start with correctly navigating a congressional office and identifying the person who has jurisdiction over your issues. While that may seem obvious, every chief of staff has stories about organizations that come in unprepared, asking for an amorphous meeting. A good rule is to treat staff meetings as you would time with a lawmaker. Know the staffer you want to meet with. Know exactly what you want to discuss. Know what you are asking. Know their background and work history.
Jimmy Keady, a former chief of staff and senior advisor to a House Republican, said in a recent Capitol Canary webinar to be direct about reaching out to staff for a meeting. “Call the office, get the emails and put everyone on those emails,” said Keady, who is the founder of JLK Political Strategies. “Wait three days, then send the same email again. Then call the office again. It’s a ‘squeaky wheel gets the grease’ type of thing.”
He said that having a constituent also send a request for the meeting can be effective. Persistence, he said, is crucial because staff are often inundated. “Don’t feel like you are being super annoying by sending six emails—you have to.”
How to Track Congressional Staff
Smart organizations build relationships with multiple staff members, both in Washington and the district, because turnover is high in a workplace where wages are comparatively low and where elections threaten job security. “Congressional staff are overworked and underappreciated,” the policy think tank New America declared in its Congressional Brain Drain report, adding that, at least among junior staffers, “these kinds of wages and hours put the median staffer on par with truck drivers and oil-rig roustabouts.” That’s not just a snark. They looked at data.
Of course, tracking staff movement on Capitol Hill is not always easy. The average tenure in a congressional staff role is about three years, according to the New America report, though many stay in Congress longer, changing jobs within an office or joining other lawmakers.
In a recent Capitol Canary poll of government affairs professionals, 8 out of 10 said they have trouble tracking turnover on Capitol Hill. Smart teams put a system in place to ensure they have the latest contact information, without creating a lot of work.
Capitol Canary’s KnowWho Contact Directories, for example, do that work for you. A team of professionals has relationships with congressional offices, finds out when jobs turn over and updates the database quickly. With data refreshed nightly, you always have a current resource that tells you who to contact and a profile in hand to help start the relationship right.
Sulkala says advocacy organizations that want to meet over issues, particularly those that directly impact the district, are likely to get a green light if they make the right request to the right person.
“Most offices want to meet with constituents, so making the ask in the right way should get you a meeting,” she said. “There needs to be a purpose. Really defining that purpose and identifying the staff member who’s handling that issue is the most important part of it.”
Building an Engagement Plan
Of course, staff in a congressional office are often as busy as the lawmaker, with everyone’s time scheduled by the quarter hour. That means your meeting is likely to be short and your presentation will need to resonate in order to be effective. Research and planning are required to understand the lawmaker’s needs and establish credibility, said Shrita Penn Hernandez, former communications director for a House Democrat and deputy communications director for the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform
“Know your issue and how it affects the Congress person’s district,” said Hernandez, who is now Chief Communications Officer and Vice President for Communications at the Urban Institute. “You have to know their legislative agenda, or at least the things that matter to them. Know their constituencies and their record and have a full grasp of their legislative priorities.”
Hernandez recommends a content audit that looks at what the lawmaker has said on your issue, as well as how they have voted and other important information such as constituent sentiment. That allows you to create an engagement plan that helps set the stage for effective meetings.
“A smart stakeholder engagement plan examines the contemporary, historical and political foundations of the issue—and places the affected stakeholders at the forefront,” she said. “You can’t go in there with your hand out, asking. It has to be part of a larger communications and outreach plan that is more than just an email, website or leave-behind. It has got to be a comprehensive strategic process because everybody’s competing for their time.”
Providing information to a congressional office can be effective, Hernandez said. As long as the data is based on rigorous research and highly credible, your organization can establish itself as a resource.
“Facts still reign supreme,” she said. “The worst thing you can do is provide information that has been editorialized. It can come back to bite you. You can lose all credibility with that person, forever. They will never forget.”
Of course, follow-up materials are also appreciated—and that includes sincere thank you notes. “As congressional staff, we always knew what we did wrong but we never knew what we did right,” Keady said. “A ‘thank you for taking the time’ goes a long way.”