How to meet with a lawmaker

Posted on March 15, 2017

[This is the fourth in a series of columns about best practices for state and local advocacy groups. The first three are about proactive legislation, a Resolution strategy, and a 6-step multi-year advocacy program.]

When most people think of lobbying, they picture an advocate walking into a lawmaker’s office, having a dispassionate conversation about the merits of a bill, and persuading the lawmaker to support it.

But that’s rarely how it works.

When a skilled advocate meets with a legislator, the advocate is mostly intelligence-gathering. It’s unlikely that the advocate will persuade the lawmaker then and there. Instead, the advocate is trying to discover whether the lawmaker has made up his/her mind or is persuadable, and if persuadable, what it will take to get his/her vote. The lawmaker may be concerned about policy, but it’s just as likely s/he is focused on more emotional or political concerns about the legislation.

Let’s consider how an advocate can maximize the results of such a meeting.

First, make an appointment. Lawmakers are heavily scheduled and you’re likely to waste your time if you stop in without one. When you get a meeting, ask the scheduler how much time you will probably have and who, if anyone, may attend besides the lawmaker. Sometimes a staff member who specializes in your policy will attend such a meeting, and that can be a good thing.

Before any meeting, learn everything you can about the official and relevant staff members. If you’re a paid advocate for a policy group, you should have already talked to the lawmaker and his/her staffers at other meetings, receptions, town halls, fundraisers, and other political events. Whether you have or not, update your knowledge of the lawmaker’s district, committee assignments and political allies, and read both the official’s biography and any stories in the media that shed light on the lawmaker’s political and policy thinking.

Do not assume that you can persuade all lawmakers with the same information and arguments; that’s just not realistic. Treat each lawmaker as an individual and find out why that official might support your legislation based on his/her particular history and interests.

Before the meeting—prepare to the max

Let’s describe the form of your presentation and then we’ll tackle substance.

Carry with you:

  • A one or two-page handout that is attractively presented and provides a list of who supports your bill and the top three reasons why the lawmaker should vote for it.
  • Copies of any charts, graphs or reports that prove the facts underlying your argument.
  • Copies of any news articles, polling summaries or letters that prove political support for your solution.
  • A copy of the bill itself and any amendments.

Be prepared to explain:

  • Your basic position in 30 seconds—an elevator speech in case you can only catch the legislator for a moment.
  • Your full position in 5 minutes or less—giving no more than three reasons for the bill.
  • Your best answers to all possible questions and attacks—which you should have prepared for all your advocates ahead of time.

As for substance, begin from some point of agreement—probably the overall policy goal of your legislation stated in a way that the lawmaker will appreciate. After that, it depends on the situation, but in most cases, explain the problem you’re trying to solve. For this, anecdotes generally work better than statistics. Then say why your solution works while other solutions don’t. Finish with the best argument that your bill is a political winner because of public support or support from powerful interest groups or legislative leaders.

Carry facts and figures with you but limit their use unless asked. Remember, you are not trying to educate the lawmaker, you’re trying to persuade him/her, which can be a very different conversation.

During the meeting—focus on the outcome

If possible, bring a constituent, sympathetic victim, or expert with you to the meeting. Advocates are a dime a dozen. If you have with you someone the lawmaker already respects, you’re already halfway to a successful outcome.

Listen carefully to the lawmaker’s reactions. They may be different than you expect and require you to move the conversation in another direction. If you do your job skillfully, the lawmaker is likely to admit the areas where you agree and drop hints about what it would take to get his/her vote.

It may be as simple as, “I hear ya but I’m not sure my district agrees.” That’s a fine response because it tells you what to do—get constituents to call, write or talk to him/her. Or it could be, “I can’t cross the committee chair on this one.” That means you need to convince the chair or get somebody else who has more political power than the chair to tell the lawmaker s/he ought to vote against the chair here and make it up somewhere else.

After expending all that energy to schedule and hold a meeting with a lawmaker, don’t end the meeting with a misunderstanding. End by restating a legislator’s position to make sure you fully understand. For example, “So you’ve heard from the AFL-CIO and you have agreed to support SB 123 to increase the Earned Income Tax Credit. Have I got that right?” If the legislator is against you, stay upbeat and say maybe next time. Give a warm thank you no matter what. Remember you’re going to lobby him/her again!

After the meeting—update your targeting

You should already have notes about every legislator—preferably in a user-friendly database. Update your notes with what you learned at this meeting. If you need to take some action to continue the task of persuasion, accomplish or schedule it.

The status of every lawmaker you lobby boils down to a number. Every official should be rated on a 1-to-5 scale where 1 is totally for you and 5 is totally against. Future advocacy should be overwhelmingly targeted at moving 3s to 2s and 2s to 1s. Throughout the legislative campaign, make sure everyone reports their contacts with lawmakers, especially if it affects their ratings on the 1-to-5 scale. More about this later!