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What to Expect During a Visit

Possible Scenario 1

"Don't Call Us, We'll Call You"

The Senator/Representative (and/or staff) listens carefully and asks few or no questions. When you ask about his/her position, you are told he/she will think about your comments. You are thanked politely for your time. This is a totally noncommittal meeting.

What do you do?

First, you should realize that this is probably the single most common type of legislative meeting. And it's not a bad one. You have established who you are, who you represent, what the issue is, and what your position is. For some meetings, this is as much as you can expect or hope to accomplish.

But you can do more.

  • First, respect the fact that the Senator/Representative has not made a decision; don't try to press him/her for a commitment he/she is not ready to make.
  • Do ask questions to find out what forces might influence the decision,
  • Build your case–cite impact on family physicians and your patients back home. Cite other supporting groups.
  • Discern the level of grassroots pressure. For example, you might find out whether mail has been received and, if so, is it for or against your position. Also, try to discover if he/she has been contacted by other groups, or if he/she wants more mail on this subject or not.
  • Always ask whether you can provide additional information. The single most persuasive document you can provide is a one page fact sheet outlining how this bill will directly affect your state or district. Other useful information includes a list of cosponsors, especially of the Senator/Representative's party.
  • Always leave your name, address and phone number (if you don't have a business card, write this on the fact sheet you leave) and the phone number and staff name for our Washington Office.
  • Talk about another issue–briefly. Don't waste time. If you are meeting with staff this is a good time to discover if he/she is from your state and other information that could provide the personal touch that adds to the relationship. You would be surprised how many of the staff went to college with your sons or daughters, or have cousins in your town, etc. (You get the picture.)

Possible Scenario 2

"I'm New" Or "I Don't Know Anything About Health"

Although this might happen when you meet with the Senator/Representative, it is more likely to happen with staff. There is a lot of turnover on Capitol Hill. Many staff–particularly those in the personal offices (with whom you will meet most often) are young and may know little about health issues. In fact, unless your Senator/Representative sits on a key health committee, don't expect the staff to know much about the issue.

Staff cannot be experts on all issues. In the personal offices, the staff may cover five or six issues, and it may not be a combination that makes sense. For example, he/she may cover defense, education, health, and transportation. Now, for some of you, it is easy to draw comparisons and links among these issues, but the staff may not see it that way.

But, contrary to what you think, this is not bad news!

This is the best time to begin to develop your position as a valuable resource to the staff--the expert on health issues. Best of all, you are an expert from back home rather than a "Washington insider."

You are the constituent on whom they can rely for accurate information, even when it is very technical. You become an asset; you can make them look good; you can make his/her job easier.

  • Start out with the basics. State who you are, what type of family medicine you practice or teach, what the graduates of your program do for the state or district. Tell them who and what your program represents.
  • Give simple information on the issue or issues. Material pertinent to your state or district are particularly valuable.
  • Don't use medical jargon. Assess level of comprehension, but don't talk down.
  • Let them ask questions. In fact, encourage them to do so. And treat all questions seriously.
  • Do what you can to develop the relationship. Letters, phone calls, and visits when you are in Washington are all tools to use. But, don't become a pest.
  • Remember, new staff become experienced staff. Personal staff can and do move to committee assignments. If you encourage an interest in health, he/she could become a good friend in future years.

Possible Scenario 3

"I Agree" Or Preaching To The Choir

After you introduce the issue, you are told that the Senator/Representative agrees with your position.

Great! Now what?

Instead of ending the conversation right then and there, you can use this opportunity to establish your position and to gather information.

  • First, don't waste time, but do ensure that there is a commitment at this time.
  • Ask if the Senator/Representative is a cosponsor (if there is a bill) or would be willing to sponsor, cosponsor, or introduce the bill (if there isn't one already), or offer an amendment to another vehicle.
  • Ask if more information would be helpful, particularly relative to how this issue affects your state or district (how many people would be affected). If more information is needed, try to get a specific idea of what would be helpful without constituting overload.
  • Ask about other organizations that support/oppose the Senator/Representative's position. Ask if you can help solidify support or identify the opposition.

Follow-up to this meeting may not be as difficult as with scenario #2, but you will need to keep the lines of communication open, so that you can be useful as the expert resource.

Possible Scenario 4

"I Agree, but…"

These are variations of the previous type, but with a twist. You may hear many excuses at the end of "I agree, but…" These days, the typical twist (or "but") is "there is no money, so how can we…?"

Don't let this throw you!

You are not expected to have the answer to every question. But, find out what the objections are and if the objections can be dealt with to the Senator/Representative's satisfaction. If you cannot supply the answers at the meeting, ensure them you will search for answers and will get back to them soon.

Sometimes there just aren't any answers to the political winds that blow. It may be a case of plugging away until critical mass of support is garnered.

Possible Scenario 5

"That Is Not My Position" Or "I Disagree" (Politely)

After opening the discussion and presenting your issue, the Senator/Representative or staff tells you politely he/she disagrees with your position.

The conversation doesn't necessarily end here.

First, this happens rarely. Members of Congress and staff do not like to directly disagree with constituents. Try the following tactics.

  • Find out why there is disagreement. Make sure your issue and your position is understood and clear. Time can be wasted by trying to argue against misconceptions. If you present facts about the needs in your state and how this legislation will affect access and cost of physicians services in your state, some of the misconceptions might be clarified.
  • Attempt to discern whether the Member's concern is over the proposed policy on an issue or the politics of a situation. Justifying a policy can be handled through facts. Politics are a different story. There may be no understandable reason (from your perspective) why the Senator/Representative takes a particular stand, nonetheless every decision is ruled by a combination of policy and political considerations.
  • Listen carefully. Don't dismiss criticisms and opposition automatically. There may be a solid basis for his/her opposition. You may need to gather more information and facts to present at a different time. You could win points just because you listened seriously to his/her comments. This also gives you the opportunity to judge the depth of the opposition.
  • Don't try to negotiate during the initial meetings. Time should be taken to carefully consider his/her position and yours.
  • Agree that no bill is perfect. Try to find out if his/her concerns can be addressed by you and/or your coalition.
  • After the meeting, analyze how what you have learned can be used or diffused. Draw upon the expertise of others who perhaps can help provide additional information.

A note of caution: If it appears a position has been taken due to moral or religious grounds, just file that knowledge away. It is not generally wise to debate issues involving "moral" or religious issues (i.e., bioethics, AIDS).

Adapted with the permission of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Copyright 2018 by Society of Teachers of Family Medicine