February 2010

Visiting Congress at Home

Your Member of Congress Is Home Most of the Time— Why Not Visit Then?


Question: What federal officials, while ostensibly based in Washington, D.C., actually spend the bulk of each year— almost three quarters of it— back in their home states? The answer: senators and members of Congress.

Congressional District Work Periods for 2010

The following are the remaining regularly scheduled “district work periods” when House and Senate members will be back in their districts and states. These are in addition to the four days each week they are home when Congress is in session. Note that Congress will adjourn in late September or early October to allow time for members to campaign at home in advance of the November elections.

• Feb. 15 – 19
• March 29 – April 9
• May 31 – June 4
• July 5 – 9
• Aug. 9 – Sept. 10
• Oct. – adjournment expected early in the month

This is a fact frequently overlooked by many society government relations programs and, by extension, their members. Many societies tend to concentrate their congressional visit activity in Washington with “Hill Day fly-ins” and other Washington-based efforts. However, because the overwhelming majority of a congressional member’s time is spent in his or her congressional district, it is an essential part of any advocacy strategy to try to meet with him or her when he or she is home. The advantages are obvious: It saves time and money and increases one’s chances of getting “face time” with the elected official.

The following are some suggestions on how to arrange a home-office meeting.

Tips on Meetings at Home

Contact the local office. All members of Congress maintain at least one local district office and sometimes more, depending on the geographical size of the district. In addition, senators usually have several scattered around the state. Go to the congressional member’s Web site (you can find it at www.house.gov or www.senate.gov ) and find the address and phone number of the office nearest you. Contact that office, introduce yourself and ask when it might be possible to get some time with the member. Congressmen frequently arrange group meetings when in their districts. They may devote one or two days a month to meeting with anyone who wants to come see them.

Plan to go with a group. Your chances of meeting with the member will increase if you go as part of a group. (Students, in particular, make excellent ambassadors.) However, make sure that your delegation includes at least some constituents: If you show up with a bunch of foreign graduate students, that is not going to have as much of an impact as if you show up with voters.

Do some research. Once you have arranged a date and time for your meeting with the local office staff, you need to do research, especially if you don’t know much about your Congress member’s positions on issues of concern to you. The member’s Web site is a good place to start. You also can contact the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology staff members in Washington. They can easily provide you with information on the member’s voting record and district as well as his or her level of support for research and the amount of federally funded biomedical research in your district or state. Many members do not realize the magnitude of the federal commitment to biomedical research: All states have at least some federally funded research conducted at colleges and universities.

Pre-meeting for the group. It is helpful if all members of the delegation get together a day or two before the official meeting to go over what to say and to review handout materials they plan to drop off. Each should rehearse a brief introductory statement of no more than a few sentences, telling who he or she is, where he or she works and the type of research he or she does. Plan to explain research in simple terms; do not use a lot of jargon. In addition, make sure to have an “ask” in mind. Members of Congress expect to be asked for something— to vote for or against a particular bill; or to support or oppose a particular position— so don’t be bashful about having one. The ASBMB staff will be happy to provide you with some possible requests.

The Day of the Meeting

Show up on time. Make sure everyone in your party shows up on time. If you do not arrive as a group (i.e., if you plan to arrive at the meeting location separately), make sure everyone knows the location of the meeting and knows how to get there. Share cell phone numbers in case there is some kind of problem.

Get to the point. After your introductory statements, it is best if you get to the point as soon as it seems appropriate. (The member may want to talk a bit about local matters, sports or other topics as ice-breakers.) Make your case as succinctly and clearly as possible. If the member asks questions, this is good; it is a sign that he or she is engaged and listening. Try to answer the questions as clearly as possible. If you do not know the answer, don’t hesitate to say so, and promise to get back to him or her as soon as possible with the answer.

Ending the meeting. Most meetings like this last 15 minutes or so; if you get a half-hour, you are very fortunate. When wrapping up, leave contact information for all of the group members and a document restating your “ask.” This should be no more than a single page or tri-fold brochure. It is also helpful to offer to arrange a visit to your lab or place of business. These visits are excellent opportunities for the member to get out into the community in a highly visible way and experience a working research laboratory.

Following up is important. After the meeting, your group should go over what was said and make particular note of any commitments the member made. If there were questions you couldn’t answer, make sure you find the answers as soon as possible. You should also write a thank-you note restating your message.

Finally, get to know your member beyond this single meeting. Drop him or her a note occasionally to comment on a public issue. Perhaps make a campaign contribution, if you share his or her politics. At a minimum, make an effort to develop and maintain a friendly and courteous relationship.

2010 Is Important

This year is shaping up to be a very important one politically. There will be a fierce battle fought for control of the House and Senate, and much is at stake that affects ASBMB interests. We hope you will make an effort in 2010 to contribute to the dialogue. Remember, whether you participate in it or not, such a dialogue will be going on.

The ASBMB staff is fully prepared to assist you in any way in arranging such meetings, and we hope you will take advantage of the resources we can provide.

Peter Farnham (pfarnham@asbmb.org) is director of public affairs at ASBMB.

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