A Westword Reporter Learns How Lobbying Works in Washington, D.C.

We’ve all seen shows like House of Cards, where D.C. politicians are lobbied by smooth operators in back-room meetings involving shady deals, offshore bank accounts and questionable campaign promises.

But let’s say we move away from the realm of blackmail and briefcases of cash for a moment.

How does a regular ol’ citizen like you or me, advocating for a cause like child protection, get the attention of the 535 members of Congress in our nation’s capitol? That’s what I wanted to know as I followed a delegation of foster-care program directors from New Jersey as they knocked on the doors of House representatives’ offices in Washington, D.C.

I was in town on April 19 at the invitation of the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA), which lobbies and advocates on behalf of children, families and the nation’s child-welfare workforce; I came to speak at a Capitol Hill briefing about Westword's January  cover story, "Played Out," about the challenges that child-welfare caseworkers face in Colorado (and across the nation). I was also honored to receive CWLA’s 2016 Anna Quindlen Award for my writing on the topic.

But while I was in D.C., I was curious to see the non-Hollywood version of how advocacy on the Hill actually works, and was allowed to tag along with the New Jersey attendees of CWLA’s advocacy summit as they tried to get some face time with their states’ elected representatives.

The thirteen-member New Jersey crew actually had meetings set up prior to our entrance into the Cannon House Office Building. Other groups and individuals at the summit would try their luck by simply showing up to a representative's office unannounced, hoping that they’d get a chance to run their elevator speech by a congressman/woman or a high-ranking staff member. Theoretically, anyone can do this, as the offices are open to the public and elected officials are supposed to make time to engage with their constituents (especially if those constituents have traveled a long way to get to D.C.).

“If you go in cold, It’s always a crapshoot,” a child-welfare advocate from New York explained to me. “But I’ve been lucky in the past.”

As it turned out, though, setting up meetings isn’t a guarantee of talking with an actual elected representative. When our New Jersey delegation arrived at the office of first-term New Jersey congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman, we were told that she had been called to the House floor for a last-minute hearing. Instead, we would be meeting with her legislative director, Michael Reed.

Even so, the foster-care directors didn’t seem to take this personally, especially when they were told that Coleman would at least be pulled off the floor to say hello and take a quick picture.  Apparently, I was to be the photographer, which is how my presence was explained.

So the foster-care directors began their meeting with Reed in an alcove of the congresswoman’s office, occasionally having to raise their voices over the jackhammer and other construction noises that rang up from the Cannon Building's courtyard, which is being renovated.

Despite the fact that the congresswoman wasn’t available, the New Jersey delegation later told me that they conducted their meeting with her legislative director in the same way that they would have with Coleman. They’ve been doing this for many years, and have devised strategies to get their points across. 

Here are some of the lobbying strategies that I learned by observing them:

1. Don’t cut to business right away. Even though there may only be ten to fifteen minutes of face time, advocates try to put their congressional representative or their aides at ease by beginning the meeting by joking or reminiscing about things in the district/state, like tacky restaurants, quirky events in the community, high-school mascots, etc.

2. When segueing into the specific "ask" – more funding, policy changes, etc. – make the supporting reasons as succinct as possible. Then leave printed copies of a bullet-pointed list of those reasons with the congressional office so that it can be passed around later.

3. If asking for money, give the congressional representative or their staff some ideas for where that money could come from. It was explained to me that current Republican efforts prevent any increases in overall spending, so that means money has to be shifted over from existing programs.

4. Have an emotional component. Show who’s at stake.

In the case of the New Jersey delegation, members brought along two teenage children who had participated in after-school programs. This was powerful, and definitely softened the mood, because the kids were nervous but very earnest when they spoke about their programs.

Of course, even employing these strategies, it was difficult to know how much of the New Jersey delegation’s message got across, and how much congresswoman Coleman would end up hearing from her legislative director.

To me, Reed certainly seemed genuine, nodding frequently and taking the bullet-pointed handout after the meeting, though I also noticed that he only wrote down a single line in his own note pad in nearly twenty minutes.

I’d end up feeling the same after delivering my own presentation about the child-welfare workforce on Capitol Hill that day — that, outside of the deal-or-no-deal House of Cards universe, you just have to hope that some of your message will stick.

In the case of the New Jersey delegation, the members did get to greet Bonnie Coleman. 

“Excuse me, we’re ready to pull the congresswoman from the floor,” one of Coleman’s office aides said as the meeting concluded.

The two teenagers who’d been brought along from Trenton smiled. At least they'd get their picture. 
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Chris Walker is a freelancer and former staff writer at Westword. Before moving to the Mile High City he spent two years bicycling across Eurasia, during which he wrote feature stories for VICE, NPR, Forbes, and The Atlantic. Read more of Chris's feature work and view his portfolio here.
Contact: Chris Walker