On Feb. 6, 2015, new senators and representatives will be officially sworn in to the 114th Congress. (Getty Images)
Do you remember your first day of freshman orientation? Did you feel lost on the large campus, worried about making new connections with your classmates, or excited about new opportunities?
This week, as the 114th Congress convenes, 69 new senators and representatives will have that same experience. These new members of Congress start from scratch – they must hire staff, establish district offices, sift through the mountain of mail that began piling up Nov. 5, and navigate the committee and caucus pecking order of Capitol Hill – all while still finding their way around the campus!
That’s why now is the time to establish a strong working relationship with your new senator or representative and his or her staff. Over the coming months and years, many other people and interests will compete for your legislator’s time, attention, and sympathy – and the sooner you connect with your legislator, the better.
Here are five ways that you can make sure to connect with your freshman and make a positive impression from the start:
- Make the time to meet in-person. Members of Congress and their senior staff consistently say that the most effective advocacy happens in a face-to-face meeting. If you attend the National League of Cities’ Congressional City Conference in March, you’ll have time to meet with your senators and with House staff (the House will not be in session that week). You can also choose a time during a district work period to meet with your legislator closer to home. Either way, make the time to meet in person, not just over the phone.
- Do your homework. During the campaign, and in prior public office, your member of Congress probably shared their opinions on a wide variety of issues. In addition to learning about your legislator’s personal, educational, and professional background, use public statements, campaign promises, and previous actions to understand his or her likely positions on your city’s federal priorities.
- Be an asset, not a problem. All members of Congress are busy, but new members with a skeleton staff and many logistical decisions to make are particularly busy. Offer yourself to the office as a resource and information channel for your community. Make your advocacy requests clear and easy to understand. Your new legislator and his or her staff will be more likely to call upon you for your input – and to take your requests and concerns seriously – if you establish yourself as reliable, trustworthy, and easy to work with. Even if your new legislator is from the opposing party, make an effort to build a strong working relationship from the start.
- Don’t neglect staff. In the first 90 days after taking office, new members of Congress scramble to fully staff their Washington and district offices. The first staff hired are likely your legislator’s most trusted advisors. As you get to know your new freshman, be sure to get to know his or her chief of staff, legislative director, and district chief of staff. These staff members’ opinions and perceptions carry a lot of weight with their bosses.
- Follow up. Advocacy is a marathon, not a sprint. After you have made your initial outreach, follow up by keeping in regular touch, inviting your legislator to visit important sites in the community, thanking them when they meet with you or provide assistance, sending them and their staff regular updates on the progress of your city’s federal priorities, and connecting on social media.
About the author: Angelina Panettieri is the Senior Associate for Grassroots Advocacy at the National League of Cities. She helps empower city leaders to engage directly with Congress on the issues most important to them.