We’re all feeling the tension these days: a desire to do something (anything!) to get the attention of our elected officials, and a helpless feeling that we don’t know where to start. With the recent rollout of the congressional plan to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act, a lot of folks from both sides of the aisle are voicing their concerns by calling the offices of their representatives and senators.
As a former Capitol Hill staffer, I know how important those calls are to members of congress as they consider how to represent their constituents. And I also know that many well-intentioned callers fail to relay an effective message because they don’t understand how the system works. So I reached out to a group of current or former Christian Capitol Hill staffers to ask their advice on effectively calling congressional offices about the healthcare debate. Our collective advice, ranging from the practical to spiritual, can be boiled down to five important tips:
1. Call the members of Congress who represent you.
Start by identifying your representative and senators. If you don’t already have their office contact information, you can look it up here, or call the Capitol switchboard (House: 202-225-3121, Senate: 202-224-3121) and ask the operator to connect you to the individual office. When you get someone on the line, immediately identify yourself as a constituent — the office will take note of your request.
Do not waste time calling every legislator on Capitol Hill. Members of Congress, ever conscious of their own job security, want to hear what their constituents and voters are saying about the healthcare bill. For that reason, most Capitol Hill staffers will tell you that calls from non-constituents are almost always disregarded.
2. Ask for the legislative assistant who handles healthcare (or any other issue you’re calling about).
You don’t have to speak directly to a member of Congress to have your opinion heard. And the beleaguered people most likely to answer the phone rarely have influence on ultimate policy decisions. Your call will be most influential if it is ultimately fielded by the person who advises the member of congress on healthcare policy.
If you cannot speak directly with the individual, ask to leave a message for him or her. If that is not possible, leave a message with the staffer who answered the phone.
3. Quickly relay your story and your specific request.
Congressional offices receive hundreds of phone calls a day so there is little time to address each one. Think through what you want to say ahead of time so you can quickly relay your ask (see below) and your story if you've got one.
Regardless of whom you speak to when you call, make an effort to learn their name and refer to them by name during the conversation. Calling a staffer by name is a way of blessing that person and acknowledging their humanity in a context where most other callers see them as little more than verbal punching bags. Effective advocacy is about building trusting relationships. Learning someone’s name is the best place to start investing in that relationship and staffers will appreciate it.
Facts and opinions are helpful, but — as Jesus demonstrated with his powerful use of parables — stories convey deep truths that penetrate even the most adverse hearts and minds. Your story can help restore the humanity that is often lost in the complex policy debate around healthcare. Briefly express what repealing the Affordable Care Act would mean for you, your family, your fellow church members, or those children of God who cannot otherwise afford the care they need.
Be honest about the ways your faith has influenced your stance on the issue of healthcare. Many congressional staffers on both sides of the aisle are people of faith and appreciate the role faith plays in helping us form our nation’s public policies. Since Scripture calls us to be bold in proclaiming the hope that Christ provides, don’t hesitate to evoke the language of faith when speaking truth to the powers and principalities in Washington.
Be sure to conclude your story with an actionable request. Hill staffers agree that the call to action is both the most important aspect of advocacy and the one most constituents overlook. Nearly everyone can agree there are problems with the GOP “repeal and replace” legislation, but what most members of Congress don’t know is exactly how their constituents want them to respond.
Your individual request will depend on what you feel led to say, but consider tangible asks that focus on legislative action such as, “Vote against the proposed legislation to dismantle the Affordable Care Act,” or, “Release a public statement in support of the benefits the people of our [state/district] have received thanks to the Affordable Care Act,” or, “Request that all members of our state’s delegation join you in writing a ‘Dear Colleague’ letter to [House Speaker Paul Ryan/Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell/ House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden], voicing your collective opposition to the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.”
4. Get the scheduler’s contact information and follow up with in-person meetings in your district’s office.
Before you hang up the phone, ask for the office scheduler’s name and email address so you can follow up with an in-person meeting with their staff in the district office, or in D.C. This step is important for two reasons: It lets the staff member know you won’t be going away just because you voiced your concern once on a short phone call; and it equips you with the email address of arguably the most influential gatekeeper in a congressional office — the scheduler — who is tasked with determining which meetings deserve a legislator’s attention and attendance.
There is strength in numbers. If you are planning an in-person meeting, gather a group of constituents to join your efforts. Several Capitol Hill staffers recommended building advocacy groups from people who share a common affiliation (e.g. members of a church, civic group, PTA board, mothers of children that have benefited from the ACA, etc.) so it’s clear that the group speaks on behalf of a large constituency. Members of Congress are always looking to reach large groups of voters, so they often prioritize meetings with those who represent coalitions of their constituents.
5. Don’t grow weary of doing good.
Prayerful persistence is the key to successful legislative advocacy. While every phone call makes a difference, the lesson I personally learned from my time on Capitol Hill was that those constituents who regularly called in and formed relationships with our staff were able to work with us to bring about meaningful policy change.
Jesus painted a picture of this type of powerful persistence in his parable about the widow and the unjust judge (Luke 18). Though the judge initially denied the widow a just result, she returned to the judge over and over and demanded that the judge do the right thing. Finally, despite his ambivalence about the justness of the widow’s cause, the judge granted the widow’s request so that she would leave him alone.
Jesus concludes the parable, saying, “And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly.” (Luke 18:7-8)
Let us continue to cry out and seek justice. One phone call at a time.