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Political Scene

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

A successful relationship between you and Congress is a symbiotic partnership that results in good press — and ultimately reelection — for your congressperson, and political action on your behalf, as we discussed in last month’s column. But, of the 535 members of Congress, who is going to be of greatest help to you? Constituency, party affiliation, committee membership and history on the issue of interest are the most important factors to consider as you move forward with your lobbying efforts.

Who can help you?

Your first question should be: “How does my issue involve my member’s constituency?” Congressional members are wary of taking on issues that do not directly affect their own constituents because treading on another member’s turf is a political risk, with no payoff in the next election. Members of Congress are elected locally, not nationally, and those who forget that point quickly lose their seats come reelection. Next to the chief of staff, a representative’s favorite staffer is probably his or her press secretary, whose job is to communicate the congressperson’s good deeds to the folks back home.

Because scientific issues rarely respect political boundaries, your challenge is to frame your issue as important to your congressperson’s constituents. If you can’t find a creative way to bring the issue home, then use your professional society to encourage compatriots who live in your target location to contact their representatives directly.

Party affiliation is critical in determining the level of assistance you can expect. Congressional power sits squarely with the majority party because the majority controls both the legislative agenda and committee chairs. In the House of Representatives, the minority party has almost no power to affect legislation (although well-timed letters from representatives can occasionally be influential). In the Senate, minority members can be more influential, particularly if they hold senior positions on a committee relevant to your issue.

Committee memberships are the most important consideration in your quest. If you seek funding, approach a member who sits on the Appropriations Committee. If oil drilling is your concern, for example, talk to a member on the Energy Committee. However, if you are looking for a substantial legislative solution to your problem (as opposed to a letter from a representative), committee staffs are the best place to start, as they specialize in your field.

Determining which issues fall under the purview of which committees can be tricky. For example, is mitigation of contaminated storm water runoff from oil drilling projects the responsibility of the Environment and Public Works Committee, the Energy and Natural Resources Committee or the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee? A Web search and perhaps a few phone calls should give you the answer.

If your member does not serve on the desired committee, reframe your issue to make it germane. For example, a witness in a recent House Energy and Minerals Subcommittee hearing testified in favor of a bill to amend the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Even though the subcommittee has no oversight of the ESA, its members effectively promoted the bill by orchestrating hearings on the role of science in resource management.

Also important is to target a member who has demonstrated an interest in your issue. A search on the Library of Congress’ legislative information Web site (thomas.loc.gov) will lead you to past legislation — including bills that failed — and give you the names of their co-sponsors, as well as references to the topic in the Congressional Record. Congressional committees and their members, along with a wealth of other information, can also be accessed from links on this Web site.

Timing is everything

Although congressional action seems to move at a snail’s pace, once an issue gets on the agenda, it moves quickly. Unfortunately, we have received phone calls from otherwise well-informed constituents requesting action two weeks after the Senate passed their bill.

Staffers’ time is spread so thin that issues tend to be addressed as they come up for consideration, without much lead time for preparation. Therefore, it is essential that you plan your visit or phone call accordingly. If you are seeking funding, then approach your member early in the calendar year; if you delay, then your request will wait until the next cycle, by which time it will have fallen off your congressperson’s radar screen.

To garner maximum attention, align your concern with the most current issues facing Congress. For example, a recent Congressional briefing entitled “The Critical Role of International Agricultural Development in the Fight Against Undernutrition and HIV/AIDS” was actually a plea to fund the production and dissemination of genetically engineered crops in Africa. The lobbyist, whose concern was subsidizing his client’s genetic engineering business, aligned with a current issue facing Congress — how to allocate HIV/AIDS appropriations.

Are you ready to talk?

Make your first contact by telephone. You can find numbers for both personal offices and committee offices online. Ask to speak to the L.A. (Hill-speak for “legislative assistant”) handling your issue, who can be anyone from a fresh-faced recent college graduate to a lawyer with 15 years of experience. Explain your concern in less than five minutes and request a meeting with the L.A., either in Washington, D.C., or in a district office. Prepare a one-page summary of your position explaining exactly what you are requesting, and be prepared to convey this in no more than 15 minutes.

Read Part I of this series, published in April.


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: Eloise_Kendy@reid.senate.gov.

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: kevin_vranes@wyden.senate.gov.

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


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