The following is a submission from Research Analyst Lucy Enge. Originally published in August 2020, this piece has renewed importance following the events in January 2021, including President Biden's inauguration.
Government, history, and civics classes have taught us about voting and have framed it as a citizen’s duty. However, these classes have too often failed to educate us about how an ordinary citizen can influence change beyond the ballot box. Just as the various special interests that we hear about lobbying, we as citizens, too, can lobby our elected officials as their constituents on issues that affect and matter to us. While the idea of lobbying might feel overwhelming and intimidating, it is actually a simple process that will leave you feeling empowered for having used your voice.
How does lobbying work from start to finish? First, find a few friends or neighbors to join you, and then, follow the steps below:
Decide what issue you want to lobby on and which one of your elected officials (i.e. in your town or city, in your state house or in Congress) you want to meet with. My personal lobbying experience mostly revolves around ending gun violence at the state level and preventing war with Iran at the federal level. The key is picking an issue that is close to your heart and that you can speak to in some way. For information on specific bills, check the official websites for local and state elected bodies and, for Congress, https://www.congress.gov/. It is an indispensable resource that also gives information about whether the bill is in committee or in the voting process, as well as cosponsors and related bills (Note: there are different numbers for the same or similar bills with “S” standing for Senate and “H.R.” for the House.).
Once you have chosen your bill and elected official, call the official’s office, explain that you are a constituent who would like to schedule a visit to discuss your chosen issue, and ask for the appropriate email address to contact to set the meeting. While the websites of elected officials usually include a visit form, it can be hard to get a response, and a combination of emails and follow-up phone calls work much better. Also, with COVID-19, virtual video calls or phone visits have become the new lobby visit normal and just be sure to ask what technology works best for them. (https://www.freeconferencecall.com/ is great because it does not have the security concerns of Zoom and offers both video and phone options.). Additionally, meeting virtually works well if you live far from local or district offices.
With your meeting scheduled, you now need to plan the visit out itself and have a practice call once or twice to become comfortable with the process. Here are rough outlines from the Friends Committee on National Legislation to walk you through the process: in person (https://www.fcnl.org/documents/23) or virtual (https://www.fcnl.org/documents/1297). Also, a few notes: With virtual meetings, have the group leader prompt each speaker, and remind everyone to not read off on, or even write, a script which can make your meetings awkward. And know that with staffers covering so many issues, you will often know more than them about a bill, and if you do not know the answer to a question, it is perfectly fine to follow up with them after the visit with the answer.
You did it! It is the day of your lobby meeting. Arrive as a group early, either virtually or in person, and check in with everyone to make sure you are prepared. Most importantly, have fun and breathe — you are fully prepared. Your practiced outline is your guide, and, unlike in your practices, the staffer will also talk and join in the conversation which is often when you can connect with them on a personal level that helps you start to build long term relationships with the office. While many visits are often friendly, you may encounter a less than welcoming office or two; in these situations, remain kind and patient and remember that your elected officials work for you and you have every right to meet with them.
Lastly, a few days after the visit, send an email thanking the staffer for their time, along with providing any answers to questions you promised, and following-up to see if there are any changes in the official’s position or what the office’s plans with the bill are going forward.
So, now that you know all about lobbying, it is time to put your thoughts and your voice to work advocating for the world around you — being a full participant in the process of government. Election Day 2020 might be less than a hundred days away, but change does not have to wait until then; it can start today with citizens lobbying their elected officials and telling them what matters to their constituency.
Lucy Enge, Research Analyst Intern