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17 Cardinal Rules for Working With Congress

When preparing for a meeting with a congressional office, be sure to follow the "17 Cardinal Rules for Working With Congress," outlined by Bill Wells in his book Working with Congress: A Practical Guide for Scientists and Engineers:

  1. Convey that you understand something about Congress. Talk about bill markups, committee structure and authority, interactions with the opposite chamber, etc.
  2. Demonstrate your grasp of the fundamentals of the Congressional decision-making system, especially the need for compromises and trade-offs. Especially in the current climate, it is important that advocates recognize fiscal realities.  Demanding increases in budgets for your favorite agency will make staffers take you less seriously.
  3. Don't seek support of science as an entitlement. Be grateful for funding support for science.  Remember, funding for agencies like NIH and NSF is DISCRETIONARY (meaning it is up to the will of Congress).
  4. Don't convey negative attitudes about politics and politicians. LEAVE ALL POLITICAL FEELINGS AND OPINIONS AT THE DOOR!
  5. Perform good intelligence-gathering in advance. Find out what committees the member is on, whether they have specific issues they are interested in, and what their background is. 
  6. Always use a systematic checklist technique. Utilize ASBMB's "Congressional Meeting Talking Points".
  7. Remember that timing is vital. Discussing a bill that has already been voted on by the members' committee wastes everybody's time.
  8. Keep the Congressional calendar in mind. If you want to meet with your member in Washington D.C., check the calendar to make sure that Congress will be in session.
  9. Understand Congressional limitations. Congress moves slowly, and also tends to not micro-manage agencies.  Do not bring intra-agency issues to Congress!
  10. Make it easier for those in Congress to help you by focusing your problem or issue clearly and making apparent what decision is needed or what action Congress should take. See "ASBMB FY13 NIH Funding Request" or "Legislative Talking Points" for examples of specific actions to be discussed.
  11. Remember that members and staff are mostly generalists. Staff members may have a science policy background but it may be in health issues or public health. In the House of Representatives, each staff member is responsible for multiple issues.
  12. Keep the "bottom line" in mind. Continually repeat your most important message.
  13. Use time -- yours and theirs -- effectively. Most Hill meetings are less than 15 minutes long.  Hill staffers are incredibly busy, so DO NOT BE LATE!
  14. Don't patronize either Members or staff. It is your responsibility as a scientist to effectively explain your research. Do not assume prior scientific knowledge, but do not treat the people you are meeting with like they are stupid.
  15. Don't underestimate the role of staff in Congress. The majority of Hill meetings are with staff.  They provide critical direction to their bosses about how to vote on specific issues, giving them significant influence on policy decisions.
  16. Remember your friends and thank them often. Everyone likes being appreciated, and thanking friendly offices for past support is the best way to ensure future support.
  17. Finally, remember that the great majority of members and staff are intelligent, hard working, and dedicated to public service. If you talk to them like people, you will get a much better response than if you try to make demands or talk down to them. 

Update on Appropriations 


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