Congressional Meetings 101
How to secure a meeting with staff of a member of the House or Senate:
- Focus on your Representative in the House and your two Senators. It is difficult to secure meetings if you are not a constituent of the member’s district or state.
- Contact the Washington, DC office of the member. Phone numbers and links to member pages are in the House and Senate directories.
- Ask to speak with the staff person who handles health-related issues, indicating you hope to set up a meeting with that person. These days, meetings can be in-person or virtual. (If this avenue proves unsuccessful, email Samantha Miller and we’ll help come up with a plan B!)
The best meetings begin with homework:
- Does the member of Congress address any relevant issues on his or her website? Websites are listed in the House and Senate directories.
- Are they the sponsor or cosponsor of any NIH-relevant legislation or legislation relevant to biomedical research? Most members of Congress identify the legislation they’ve sponsored and cosponsored in the “About” section or a dedicated “Committees and Legislation” section of their website. If not, you can find the legislation they have sponsored or cosponsored by looking up the member on congress.gov; once there, you can use the filters to look for bills focused on subject areas (like “Health”) or originating in certain Committees (like “Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions”) to make it easier to find relevant legislation.
- Is the member of Congress a member of the NIH Caucus, the R&D Caucus, or any other caucuses that resonate with you? Their website will list their caucuses.
- How much research funding flows into the state (and/or district) of this member of Congress, and what is the economic impact of those dollars? (Use our spreadsheet of NIH and NSF funding for the states and districts of every member of the 118th Congress.)
- If you are an advocate for research focused on a particular disease, look for statistics about the prevalence of that disease in your state; if it’s a rare disease, look for national or global statistics.
- Think through how you might serve as a resource to the office going forward. Can you help answer constituent questions about a certain type of research? Can you connect the office with experts or with a civic organization in your city or town? Note that personal office staffers (with limited exceptions) do not handle campaign matters, so this is not the right meeting to volunteer to work on or donate to the member’s campaign. Contact their campaign office for those purposes.
Two key goals for meetings with congressional staff:
- Form an authentic connection with the staffer.
- So they can trust the information you provide is factual and the asks you are making are reasonable.
- So they will consider you a resource when relevant issues arise.
- Successfully make the case for the “ask” that led you to arrange the meeting.
- Have a clear request in mind.
- Be specific. A successful ask will have an action item the staffer can convey to your member of congress.
- Tell your story. Use your personal experience and any relevant data pertaining to your cause to bolster your ask.
So what should be asked?
- Ask them to join a caucus specific to biomedical research. This can be disease specific, such as the Rare Disease Caucus; subject specific, such as the Neuroscience Caucus, or agency specific, such as the NIH Caucus. Thank them for being part of any other relevant caucuses and ask what information would be useful in helping the member of Congress decide whether to join the caucus specific to your ask.
- Ask for increased funding for federal agencies that support scientific research. Connect back to your homework to understand how agencies such as NIH, NSF, CDC, FDA, and ARHQ financially support your cause. Some organizations, such as Act for NIH, suggest specific budget increases that you can include in your ask. Specifically, ask that your member of congress speaks to congressional leadership about increasing the budget for these federal agencies in the Fiscal Year 2024 Omnibus appropriations package.
- Ask for support on a piece of legislation. If you know of a current bill relevant to forwarding biomedical research, ask if your member of congress will support the bill or co-sponsor it. If you don’t have a piece of legislation in mind, you can look to the advocacy community for resources. Often, scientific societies will have advocacy arms mentioning relevant legislation. Keep an eye out for Advocacy Alerts from Research!America which can contain information on new important pieces of legislation.
Plan for a 10-minute meeting:
With few exceptions, meetings with members of Congress or staff are 15 minutes on the outside, 10 minutes ideally (from the staffer’s perspective) — and could be even less, depending on what all is going on that day. This means you need to have a 30-60 second elevator pitch prepared for your ask, because you’ll need the rest of the time to begin forming an authentic connection with the staff member(s) with whom you are meeting.
Follow these suggestions (or improvise!):
- Thank the staffer for the meeting.
- As an icebreaker, tell the staffer what town or city you live in and ask where they are from.
- Make the case. Specify the action you would like for the member of Congress to take. Draw from your homework to connect the dots between research and the state. Draw from personal stories to engage the staff member on the significance of federally funded research. Include your own personal experiences of how funding from federal agencies (e.g., NIH, NSF, CDC, FDA, AHRQ) have served to improve health outcomes and drive opportunities in your state and district.
- Ask for the staffers thoughts about your request(s), and whether additional information would prove useful. Ask if you can check back in a couple of weeks on your request.
- Not all meetings are perfect. On the off occasion, a staffer might ask questions that you prefer not to answer, move the conversation away from the original subject, or pushback on your ask. It is important to remain courteous and not take the bait. Thank the staffer again for their time and circle back to why you personally believe your ask is important to your state or district. Congressional offices want to foster good relationships with their constituents and are usually happy to return the conversation to your ask.
- Close by offering to serve as a resource going forward if you’ve identified a way you can be helpful.
- Send a thank you email, including any additional information you have been asked to provide. Ideally, include a relevant article or website link – it could provide information useful for answering constituent correspondence on a current issue, relate to a specific NIH- or NSF-funded project in your district or state, or otherwise makes sense to include.
You can identify the staffer’s email address this way:
House email addresses: firstname.lastname@example.org
Senate email addresses: email@example.com
- Pat yourself on the back! You just made a difference. Even if your meeting results in no immediate action, you have made a new connection and raised awareness. Those seeds may not bear fruit right away, but if you sustain these connections, they will bear fruit!