Lobbying Dos And Don’ts

A legislative staffer outlines the right and wrong ways of working with lawmakers’ offices.


Still a useful tool for helping credit unions improve lobbying techniques, this article originally ran in Callahan & Associates’ 3Q 2009 Credit Union Strategy And Performance (CUSP), a quarterly report on the industry.

Legislative aide John Alex Golden, who has worked on the House side of Capitol Hill for several years, gives some perspective on how to affect legislation. He is now the legislative aide to Virginia House of Delegates Member David Englin.

Should someone expect to see the legislator?

JAG: At the state level, almost certainly; it never hurts to ask to speak to the legislator directly if he or she is available. That said, you shouldn’t be disappointed talking with one or more legislative aides, who are often as well versed on your issue as the legislator. Establishing good relationships with aids is an important part of your long-term lobbying efforts.

What is crucial to know about coming to see a legislator?

JAG: It’s really important to have done your homework. Know the status of the bill you want to discuss: the bill’s name, its number, the committees it’s in, its co-sponsors and the like. It’s also a good idea to know the law concerning such things as lunches and fund raising for your state. In Virginia, for example, legislators cannot raise money during the legislative session, and they have to report certain gifts and lunches they receive during the session.

Do lawmakers prefer emails or hardcopy letters?

JAG: Both. Write a nice and personal hardcopy letter. But paper gets lost, so follow up with an email to the same subject, because electronic data is saved more efficiently than paper. Email is probably the better form with which to include data that supports your case.

How can someone make the most of their meeting with a lawmaker?

JAG: Explain how the issue affects the lawmaker’s district. Try to have data on how your position will help the lawmaker’s district, city or county, and state. If you are visiting state capital offices, try to have the person making the visit be from the lawmaker’s district.

Are lawmakers open to suggestions for language for a bill?

JAG: This is often helpful, but be mindful that state bills are often filed very early in legislative sessions; in Virginia, for example, we’re limited to introducing only five bills once the session actually starts.

What do lawmakers’ visitors often miss?

JAG: Yes, and often they are small things. It’s really important to show up on time. Everyone in a legislative office ends up with very tightly orchestrated days. In this regard, research where an office is, where you are going to park, and how you are going to get around so you can be sure to arrive on time. Stop at the receptionist’s desk and announce yourself rather than marching past. You don’t have to dress to the nines, but you don’t want to be too casual either.

Even if you are passionate about an issue – and most people who see us are – don’t be confrontational. We are dealing with thousands of bills in a short time and sometimes we haven’t yet heard of your particular point of view. Expect some back-and-forth, because we want to get to the heart of issues, but don’t be afraid to say you don’t know the answer to a question and that you will get back to us about it – you don’t want to make up answers or numbers on the spot and end up giving legislators misleading information.

What about follow-up?

JAG: Definitely follow up. Send a follow-up email about the meeting, what you hoped to get accomplished, and what was discussed; include any useful information not already given. And here’s a final thought: Send a thank-you card. Of the hundreds of meetings I had last session, one was with a person on the opposite side of an issue from our office. But he took the time to send a hand-written note thanking me for the meeting and giving me his contact information. Little things like that can have an impact.