Communicating With Committees and Caucuses
Advocating before Congress can be complicated. In addition to 535 voting members, there are dozens of committees and subcommittees and hundreds of caucuses. Here's some expert advice on how to navigate.
Advocating before Congress can be complicated. Not only are there 535 voting members, but there are dozens of committees and subcommittees—each with its own majority and minority staff—and hundreds of caucuses.
Committees in the House and Senate have broad powers. The Ways and Means, Budget and Appropriations Committees direct trillions of dollars in federal spending. A House Select Committee is investigating the Jan. 6 riot in the U.S. Capitol.
Caucuses don’t have direct legislative responsibility but they can be extremely influential—and there are more than 450 of them, representing lawmakers interested in everything from agriculture to zoos. While only a handful have major influence, any can come into play when it comes to supporting or opposing legislation.
Add to that coalitions of lawmakers based on political ideology, such as the New Democrat Coalition or the Freedom Caucus, and the situation becomes clear: there is a great deal for government affairs teams to navigate when it comes to pushing a legislative agenda in Congress.
Approaching a Committee
Approaching a committee is different from approaching a lawmaker. Committees generally have a national agenda, which can be very different from a lawmaker who is focused on a single state or district.
“It’s going to be more labyrinthine than a congressional office,” said Shrita Penn Hernandez, a former communications director for a House Democrat and deputy communications director for the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. “It is usually a very connected universe. There are brokers upon brokers to have those conversations. You can’t just walk in and talk to the head of the committee.”
Hernandez says the key is to build relationships with lawmakers and staff over time. “You have to demonstrate a record and pattern of impact and success,” she said. “Go to the events. Write the letters. Start the cultivation process before you need something. If you can get them to see your work as credible, as a resource, when the time comes and you need a committee introduction, that relationship will be there.”
Communicating With Caucuses
Caucuses are simply groups of lawmakers drawn together by a single cause or agenda. There are caucuses dedicated to everything from nuclear cleanup to oil and gas issues. Some of the most influential caucuses represent America’s racial and ethnic communities, many of which are growing.
The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), for example, has been operating for more than 50 years and currently includes 56 members of Congress. Those members represent more than 82 million Americans, about 25% of the U.S. population, and more than 17 million African-Americans, about 41% percent of the U.S. African-American population, according to the CBC. And more than 50 votes in Congress is no small thing.
Congress is becoming more diverse, with the number of women, LGBTQ lawmakers and lawmakers of color increasing. While there is a long way to go to achieve truly equal representation, real progress was made in recent election cycles it is expected to continue. That means that groups like the CBC, the LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus may grow more influential.
Meanwhile, government affairs teams have struggled with diversity. A Public Affairs Council report last year showed that just 17% of public affairs staff were people of color, lower than the percentage in Congress and in the U.S. population generally. Yet diversity is a necessary ingredient to communicate effectively with Congress, said Hernandez, a former vice president for communications and marketing at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and chief public affairs and communications officer at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
“We all should be aware of blind spots,” said Hernandez, who is now chief communications officer and vice president for communications at the Urban Institute. “I think the first step to bridging the gap is to understand that awareness is important and that representation matters. There has to be an intentional effort to invite diverse voices, experiences and perspectives to the table.”
How Your Team Can Improve
Whether you are approaching a committee, a caucus or a coalition of lawmakers, there are some strategies your team can adopt to be more successful.
- Understand the Legislative Agenda. Every committee has a highly focused agenda, both on the majority and the minority side. Caucuses too have bills they support and oppose. Knowing the landscape before you ask for a meeting is essential. Do your research.
- Establish Credibility. Establish your organization’s credibility on the issue you want to discuss before you approach a committee or caucus for a meeting. For many organizations, this may not be difficult. It can be done in many ways, from publishing op-eds to generating highly credible research. If your organization has a high profile on the issue, you are far more likely to get an audience.
- Build Staff Relationships. Like approaching individual lawmakers, the gateway to decision makers on committees is congressional staff. Determine the staffer that handles your issue and approach them for a meeting (the KnowWho Directory of congressional staff can help you reach the right people). Remain flexible on how, where and when. Make sure you have a highly focused reason for the meeting and a concrete “ask” for the staffer. Then, follow up and begin an ongoing dialog.
- Offer Expertise. Committees often need experts to testify at hearings and to provide different perspectives. If your organization has experts that can help, make sure committee staff know that. If your organization can provide constituent voices, that can also be valuable to a busy committee staff.
- Focus on Diversity. Increasing diversity, equity and inclusion efforts can impact everything from strategy to messaging because it increases your team’s understanding of life in the states and districts that lawmakers represent. When approaching caucuses that represent minority lawmakers, or a diverse congressional committee, it can help a great deal.
“Regardless of whether it’s a Hispanic community, rural community, Black community, Asian or other underrepresented community, when people do not feel represented there’s sometimes a lack of trust,” Hernandez said. “It is important to understand the community concerns before you can represent them. Representation matters. Deep connections to those communities matter. Understanding the lived experiences matters.”