This article was published in the Catalyst in December, 2003.
Do it yourself lobbying
By Brian Earl Watkins
Twenty million American tourists miss the best experience in Washington, D.C. every year. Visiting the White House or the Smithsonian they look up at Capitol Hill and admire the handsome dome on our Capitol. But few discover that inside, even in our busy and professionally lobbied Congress, we the people can still play the key role in planning our future.
I went to Washington as a citizen lobbyist and paid for the trip out of my own pocket because I want to protect Utah’s wild, untrammeled mountains and deserts. In Washington I took a day of Utah Wilderness Coalition lobby training to help me do a better job. The UWC advocates protecting the best of the remaining undeveloped, unroaded public land in Utah forever. Even against a hostile Utah delegation UWC has won support from up to 40% of the House Of Representatives for its wilderness proposal through active support from citizens in Utah and across the country.
Lobby training teaches you the basics of Capitol Hill. Don’t say anything mean even about your enemies because you never know who is friends with whom. Always wear a dark suit, even if it’s 110 degrees and humid. And make appointments in advance with the staff aides who gather information for their busy bossesâ€”congressmen.
With Lindsey, an activist and friend from the Illinois town where I grew up, I made appointments to ask the Illinois delegation to support Utah Wilderness by cosponsoring America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act. Cosponsorship is a public declaration of support that adds a congressman’s name onto a bill.
Lindsey and I were excited to meet the environmental aide working for her congressman. But the aide told us that her boss, a Republican, was being already being criticized by his colleagues for supporting conservation and apologized that she could not ask him to help us. We were disappointed, but the aide promised to find a gap in his schedule for us to see him in person the next day.
Though the process can be discouraging, with persistence you can make a difference. Lindsey and I were inspired by Vicky Stone of New Jersey. She loved to visit Utah’s sandstone deserts so she organized her state to preserve it. She called the offices of every congressman from New Jersey and made appointments to meet the staffers. Then she asked them to tell their bosses to cosponsor the Utah wilderness bill. She found people who cared about Utah in the districts of those who hesitated and set up in-district meetings with congressmen to let them know what their constituents thought. Within a few years every congressman from New Jersey was a cosponsor.
My own first trip to Washington happened to be during the week of September 11th, 2001. I was standing on the steps of the U.S. Capitol building when the terrorists attacked. Capitol police waving guns chased us out of the buildings when the Pentagon was hit. Most lobbyists went home, but Congress was determined not to be cowed and stayed in Washington. Inspired by their determination, I kept walking the halls, visiting offices, and rescheduling appointments. It worked. When an agriculture markup was canceled I had a lot of time to share pictures and stories about Utah Wilderness with one staffer and he was inspired to push his boss to cosponsor American’s Red Rock Wilderness Act. The congresswoman signed onto the bill the next week.
Walking the corridors of Congress I feel like a child in an adult sized world. Ceilings are high, hallways are wide, and buildings are separated by long walks. I feel a sense of awe about the decisions made in those halls. Even the way my feet hurt from long walks on those unyielding marble floors has a certain majesty. But democracy means that the majesty and awe comes from the people and we get to participate in it.
Our chance to participate with Lindsey’s Illinois representative came later in the week and we knew even a short face to face meeting was the best chance to make our case. We told him about the red rock canyons with pictures and a few words about the way the land inspires us. He told us he was a firm supporter of the environment and checked some specific details with us while chatting about the district. Within five minutes he had cosponsored our bill.
You can visit Congress any time, but call ahead for an appointment. Staffers are busy and congressmen are busier. The capitol switchboard phone number is (202) 225-3121. Remember that you can visit the staff of any congressman you like, especially those from your state or places you have lived. When you visit the office of your own district, try to get a meeting with the congressman in person. You will do best with a specific issue and a specific favor to ask for. A congressman could write a new bill or cosponsor one you like or even write a letter to his colleagues about an issue. The Utah Wilderness Coalition (www.uwcoalition.org), the Sierra Club (www.sierraclub.org), MoveOn (www.moveon.org), and many others groups sponsor short training sessions for their activists and organize lobby weeks to help you be more effective on Capitol Hill. Bringing along a friend or a whole group makes a big impression, too.
And don’t forget to follow up. Write a thank you note to the staff member you talked to. Get your friends and neighbors to call up your congressman too or arrange a district meeting with him and your supporters back home.