Political Scene

Breaking Down the Barriers: A Two-Part Series, Part I
Eloise Kendy and Kevin Vranes

Although it is a tired cliché, knowledge is power, and nowhere is that more true than in legislative politics. In order for there to be change, those in power need to become aware that change is necessary. Your members of Congress were elected to serve you and they therefore want to hear from you. They cannot do their jobs without citizens’ input. In other words, they need to be lobbied.

The popular perception of lobbying is negative and implies shadiness or improper access. But in Congress, lobbying is beneficial; it is where Congress and the citizen scientist intersect. A good lobbyist brings timely, relevant information to congressional staff.

Every year, thousands of complex issues arrive on the desks of congressional offices; imagine how many may slip through the cracks. A typical senator for a state with a population of 5 million people employs only five or six legislative staffers. While staffers from one office may pick up an issue, staffers from another may never even hear about it. Thus, a well-timed phone call about a bill might mean the difference between passage and defeat.

For example, the House of Representatives recently passed a reauthorization of the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP). Although the entire geoscience community was behind the bill, the Senate had not signaled an intention to consider the bill. This is where a late January visit to one of our senators’ offices by a professional engineering society proved timely and effective.

Having been made aware of the existence of NEHRP, one of us wrote a letter for the senator requesting action on the bill. As the process now moves forward, this visit and ensuing letter might be pivotal to the passage of the NEHRP bill.

The quid in the quid pro quo

In return for the information you provide, your member of Congress may take a range of political action on your behalf, including writing letters, making phone calls, co-sponsoring legislation and holding hearings. Influential avenues available to members of Congress extend far beyond introducing and voting for legislation.

Targeted communication can be a powerful tool for a member of Congress. A letter from a senator to a state or federal agency chief can prompt immediate attention and a careful response suitable for the press. Or your member may want to assist you but, for any number of reasons, needs to keep his or her role confidential. In that case, a phone call from a senator can be as effective as a letter, but keeps the action behind the scenes.

As a citizen scientist, you can assist your member by composing a letter for him or her to sign or by preparing talking points for a phone call that he or she can place, keeping in mind that a request for sensitive information can be just as effective as a demand for action.

A simple but effective action to suggest to your congressional member is to co-sponsor an existing bill. Often, having a large number of bipartisan co-sponsors increases a bill’s chance of success. If you are asking your members to vote for pending legislation, why not go the next step and ask them to become co-sponsors?

Senators and representatives also influence policy through public hearings. Because Congress has oversight duties of the executive branch agencies, senior agency officials find themselves closely and publicly questioned many times a year. Congressional members frequently use these venues to raise issues that are of concern to their constituents. You may suggest a question that, if asked, will become a matter of public record and can later be used to your advantage.

In addition, by staging a hearing in your home congressional district, your representative can promote his or her own accomplishments while garnering support and information for future action on your behalf. You can help by providing information, helping to organize the event and suggesting dynamic speakers.

Ask and ye shall receive

Ultimately, a successful relationship between you and Congress is a mutually beneficial one, which results in good press for your legislator and high-level advocacy on your behalf. You offer knowledge, which leads to accolades — and, ultimately, reelection — for your congressperson. In turn, your representative offers political action, which supports your stand on an issue.

In your mind, frame the solution to your problem as a news headline lauding your member of Congress: “Senator wins $3 million for clean water”; “Congressman targets illegal dumping”; “Bill would create 10,000 jobs”; “Senator’s action supports local schools.” Then approach your representative with the request that will garner this glowing press.

Although informational briefings are not unusual, it is best to approach your member with a specific request. If your objective is purely educational, then your challenge is to understand the policy implications of your lesson and to frame it accordingly. Staffers are so busy and action-oriented that they may resent your taking their time without having a specific agenda. Don’t be the one who provokes the exasperated, but oft-repeated refrain, “it took half an hour before I even knew what he wanted.” (Both of us have been on the staffer end of such a meeting.)

According to a seasoned lobbyist, “Congress is all about bartering. It’s about getting something. Any inhibition about lobbying for your project only hinders your objective.”

And remember, you need not travel to Washington, D.C., to inform your members of Congress or their staffs; you can always arrange a meeting in a district office. If you schedule well in advance, you might be able to show your representatives your lab, stream-gauging station, mine site or other field project. A hands-on visit can strengthen your argument and provide good press for your senator or representative.

In Part II of this series, coming in May, we will explore how to identify the best members of Congress to help you achieve your mutual goals and how to begin your relationship with their staffs.

Kendy is the 2003-2004 American Geological Institute (AGI) Congressional Science Fellow, one of about 30 fellows sponsored by science and engineering societies. She is spending her one-year fellowship working on public lands, water resources and energy policy in the office of Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev). Email:

Vranes is the 2003-2004 American Geophysical Union (AGU) Congressional Science Fellow. He is spending his one-year fellowship working on issues ranging from transportation to endangered salmon in the office of Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore). Email:

Support for the AGI fellowship is provided by the AGI Foundation.

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