Well, I've had quite an exciting week. First of all, the team here at the Advocacy Associates empire organized hundreds of Congressional meetings for two different Washington, DC fly-ins, both of which occurred on March 11th. That wouldn't be notable in and of itself except that one of them took place at the Mayflower Hotel here in Washington, DC. Yes, THAT Mayflower hotel - the very one where Governor Spitzer, ummm, "stayed" in February. So yours truly had the joy of being at the Mayflower the day the news broke. We were so swamped with phone calls and meeting changes during the day that I didn't even hear the news until I called my husband at 6:00pm to say, without understanding the humor at all, "well, I just finished my day at the Mayflower and now I'm going home.
" Really. That's what I said. The silence on the other end of the line was deafening (although perhaps he was laughing so hard he couldn't speak). More important though is the fact that March 11th was perhaps one of the busiest days I have ever witnessed on Capitol Hill. There were literally tens of thousands of advocates in town all seeking meetings with their elected officials. Unfortunately, many offices simply couldn't accommodate all the requests, and some advocates were turned away.
From the advocate perspective, I can certainly sympathize. It's frustrating to come all the way to Washington, DC only to be told that one of your Representatives simply can't meet with you. At the same time, as a former staff person, I empathize with the Congressional offices.
Imagine, if you will, hundreds of your clients, patrons, patients, supporters, employees -- whoever it is that comes to you on a daily basis - calling you and saying "Hi, I'll be in town from 10 to 2 on Thursday. I'd like to meet with you and I won't take no for an answer." Many of the staff we talked to this week were in that situation, and no matter how much they wanted to do so, there was no way to fit hundreds of individuals into one four-hour period. Frankly, the combination of increasing numbers of advocates attending fly-ins with decreasing or stagnant Congressional staff levels spells disaster.
I think we're heading toward a show down in the not too distant future. How can you avoid being part of the problem? Following are some ideas, using the "March" theme (just to keep things interesting): "Beware the Ides of March" (Shakespeare's Julius Caesar): Take the soothsayer's advice and stay away from DC in early to mid-March. Don't believe me? Type the phrase "lobby day March 2008 DC" into the search engine of your choice - you'll be surprised at what you find.
From the AMA to the National Recreation and Park Association to the American Wind Energy Association, everyone under the sun shows up in DC in early March. In fact, while at the Mayflower on Monday and Tuesday, I saw both the National Funeral Directors Association and the Americans for Tax Reform conducting their lobby days - I guess it's true that nothing's certain but death and taxes. "March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb": Even moving your event to April can help ease the scheduling crunch.
The groups holding events in April, May, September and October tend to have longer meetings and a more energetic response on the part of the staff. "But wait," you're thinking, "our group has appropriations issues. Don't we HAVE to be here in March?" First of all, there are more ways to get your message across than just a DC fly-in (see the note below). Certainly you want your folks communicating early in the appropriations cycle. Fortunately, there are dozens of ways to do so without dragging them all to DC.
Second, when was the last time you saw Congress actually adhere to its self-imposed budget / appropriations deadlines? I've been here twenty years and I haven't seen it happen yet. "March to the Beat of a Different Drummer" Fly-Ins are great, but don't focus exclusively on Capitol meetings as your main (or only) advocacy effort of the year. Consider the example of the American Library Association, which holds a "virtual legislative day" for ALA members who cannot get to DC for their May lobby day.
Library supporters from around the country are encouraged to contact their elected officials from their districts while their cohorts are in DC. Or, take a page from National Public Radio's playbook. They are working with Congress to declare April "Public Radio Recognition Month" and are coordinating a DC fly-in for public radio stations as well as in-district activities throughout the month.
These "one-two punch" approaches serve to magnify your voice in the Capitol - even during the busy season. "Our life is March weather, savage and serene in one hour" (Ralph Waldo Emerson): Don't like the weather in March? Wait a minute, it will change. The same is true of Capitol Hill. Political alliances, perspectives and positions are constantly evolving. If you're not completely satisfied with the responses you're getting from your elected officials, continue to be polite, firm and persistent - you may be able to change their mind yet! "Crazy as a March Hare" (Alice in Wonderland): Sometimes the people in Washington, DC do seem as crazy as March Hares.
When you find yourself wondering whether you've accidentally fallen down the rabbit hole into some kind of fantasy world, it's time to take a step back and realize that some things are out of your control. Events can overtake even the best planned lobby days, leaving you with advocates trying to have coherent policy meetings while the main things on everyone's mind are gas prices, or blizzards or shenanigans in fancy hotels. Please remember our "march" ideas as you "march forth and advocate" - although as one advocate told me recently, that applies only to March 4th. Ha-Ha.
Stephanie Vance, the Advocacy Guru at Advocacy Associates, works with organizations that want to impact public policy through effective advocacy techniques. She offers training and consulting services on getting government to listen and can be found on the web at http://www.advocacyguru.com