Americans across the country are reacting to sweeping new federal policies on health care, immigration, the environment and other issues. Those who want to share their views directly with their own elected representatives are frequently faced with a special challenge:
They can't find them.
In the past, town halls held on weekends or congressional recesses gave constituents the chance to talk with the Member of Congress representing their community. But according to a recent LegiStorm analysis, since the election of Donald Trump, the number of face-to-face town halls announced by Republican members of the House and Senate has plummeted.
In fact, LegiStorm calculated that 41 percent of the 228 town halls scheduled by Republicans since the beginning of 2017 are not in-person events. Instead, they're to be held remotely, using Facebook, telephone or radio, enabling the Member of Congress to more easily orchestrate interactions with constituents and avoid tough questions.
And the percentage jumps higher if one Republican outlier holding all of his 45 town halls in person is excluded from the analysis. Then the percentage spikes up to more than half of Republican town halls to be held remotely so far this year. LegiStorm notes that of town halls announced by Democrats this year, 12 percent of 193 town halls are to be conducted remotely.
Clearly, town halls are not the only opportunity constituents have to meet with their representatives; however, there have been reports of Members of Congress refusing office meetings with their own constituents, locking their district offices, and leaving phones unanswered by congressional staffers .
So what should you do if you can't get through?
- Start with email to convey your interest in meeting with your representative. Send the scheduler a brief email highlighting your hometown in the subject line (e.g., Meeting request with Rep. XYZ from a constituent in PDQ city/town in the congressional district). Tell the scheduler the purpose of the meeting and any others who will be joining you. If you don't receive a response within a week, email again.
- What if I don't know the scheduler's email address? The format for email addresses in the House of Representatives (including district offices) is first name.last email@example.com. In the Senate, it's first name_last name@Senator's last name.senate.gov (including state offices) FYI - This applies to personal offices, not committees. There are staff directories online, so you should be able to find the scheduler's name by googling, etc.
- Check to see whether your Representative or Senators post their schedule online. Find a suitable event he or she is attending and show up. Make sure to be courteous and non-threatening. This lowers the potential for being labeled a security "risk"and ignored (or worse). But be persistent - staff may attempt to prevent you from talking with your Member of Congress or try to cut the conversation short (this happens to reporters all the time.)
- If a schedule isn't posted, try tweeting or Facebook messaging your Member of Congress to ask about upcoming events in the district.
If you're able to travel to Washington, you'll have more potential opportunities to button-hole your Representative and Senators.
Go to your Member's office, identify yourself as a constituent from XYZ community and ask to speak to your Representative or Senator. If you've tried to set up a meeting but did not receive a response, ask to speak to the Chief of Staff to let him or her know of your efforts to arrange a meeting in advance. You may be told that your Member is extremely busy and unable to meet with you, but a staff member would be happy to discuss your issue. Ask which staffer - title and issue portfolio - would take the meeting (so you're not meeting with an intern or someone who knows little about your particular issue). You may decide that meeting with the relevant staffer is sufficient. If not, see below.
- Pay attention to when there's a vote called on the House or Senate Floor. Bells will sound announcing a vote, and your Member of Congress will need to head to the Floor to vote. If you're unsure of whether a vote has been called, you can ask a staffer or a Capitol Police officer. Follow the same protocol in #3 above and always lead with being a constituent from XYZ community in the district or state. If you've decided to wait in the office and your Member is behind closed doors, he or she will need to leave to vote. That's you're chance to introduce yourself to your Member of Congress - ask if you can walk and talk about your issue.
- When he or she attends a hearing. Make sure you know which committees your representative serves on (found on the Member's website) and then check the web sites of those committees for the time and location of hearings while you'll be in DC. The hearing room's anterooms and dais are restricted to Members and staff, but the hearings are almost always open to the public - you can sit in the audience and watch, trying to catch your Member as he or she leaves the hearing room.
Have you tried any of these advocacy techniques? What were the results? Do you have others you've found effective? Let me know, and I'll share them in a future post.