How to Make the Most of Your Meeting with a Member of Congress

By: Former Congressman Nick Rahall


Headshot of Nick Rahall

The interview with former West Virginia Representative Nick Jo Rahall reveals how you can build positive relationships with your U.S. Representatives and Senators.  Congressman Rahall served in the U.S. House of Representatives for 19 consecutive terms beginning in 1976.  He was Chairman of the House Resources Committee and the ranking member on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.  He has always been a great friend of the outfitting industry.  During his tenure in Congress, he authored legislation to create the New River Gorge National River and the Gauley River National Recreation.  He also passed legislation to make downstream whitewater recreation a project purpose of the Summersville’s Dam on the Gauley River, the first Corps of Engineers project to be officially designated for that purpose.  He also made downstream recreation a project purposes at 11 Corps projects in the mid-Atlantic area.  That designation at the Frances Walter project in Pennsylvania led to extending flows on the Lehigh River, greatly enhancing the economic benefits of that project.

He offers this advice on how to conduct yourself to derive the maximum benefit when visiting your member of Congress.

Setting up Appointments

Always, except under special circumstances discussed below, go through staff to see your Representative or Senator. Preferably, BOTH the legislative aide with jurisdiction over issue to be discussed and the scheduler.  The scheduler often feels like he/she runs the show and you should recognize the scheduler as such. As you will hear often from me in this interview, BE RESPECTFUL, NO MATTER HOW BOTHERED you may feel, of all staff and certainly the Member of Congress.

Make every effort , once appointment time offered you, to move your schedule to fit time given you by scheduler. Always act like their time is more valuable than yours.

As appointment time approaches, reconfirm with scheduler by asking "am I locked in with Rep./Sen---on so and so day, date, time?" Read between the lines,  you are seeking a definite commitment to see the Member, and not just staff.


Conducting Yourself with the Member

Once in office with Member, again RESPECT is the key word, respect of both his/her time and position. LEAVE ALL POLITICS outside office (except that you have always voted 

for him/her).  Stick to your issue.  Forget guns, DACA, Trump tweets, anything he/she might have said in the media recently, especially if you disagreed! If you are opposing something the Member is sponsoring, ignore it, especially if it is unrelated to your issue. If related to your issue(s) and IF he/she brings it up, it is okay to express your position, always prefacing "with all due respect, Sir/Madame".  You should stick to only issues you briefed staff on beforehand.  

Special circumstances might include long time personal relationship you have with Member, which you feel would allow you to bring up what you what, tell jokes, or, of course, if he/she brings up any other issue okay to discuss.  In addition, if you attend a town hall meeting or run into your representative back home, then you can discuss what you please! And if town hall meetings are held make every effort to attend.  Every Member listens, or should listen, to the grass roots.


The Importance of the Ask

Best to open discussion of your issue(s) in general terms first, stressing BIPARTISAN nature of recreation, outdoor, outfitting, backpacking, family-oriented activities that all American people appreciate.  Members of Congress are yearning for bipartisan policies from Washington that produce positives for them.  Your issues bridge the partisan divide.  You represent hard-working, small business people providing jobs.  You often suffer from the unintended consequences of what comes out of Washington. For example, the higher overtime requirements, multi-jurisdiction requirements for small passenger vans and similar issues. If Member asks questions, go into further detail. And here, I have to highly commend David Brown and his staff at AOA, for the excellent preparation binder they put together for Camp Washington.  If you have more than one issue, rank in order of importance to you as part of THE ASK. Leave written info to personally hand to the Member of Congress, regardless of what you have already given to staff. Be sure all your contact information is left in hands of Member.


What if They Deflect from the Issue at Hand

If he/she deflects do not let it bother you.  SMILE, be upbeat, respectful appreciating the response, no matter how dumb you feel it may be. 

To build and maintain relationships, if you do not know the answer to a questions, ask if you might FOLLOW-UP with staff.  Also, ASK if you might stay in contact with staff and, ASK to be contacted at any time.   FOLLOW-UP with staff is VITAL.  Be sure to thank the Member on the behalf or your colleagues in the industry.


Conducting Fund-raisers

The effort to improve your political influence is most important. Nobody can completely dissociate him/herself from the political process and claim to be a good citizen.  It is all our responsibility to become involved.  Today, more than ever, the process screams out for responsible, concerned, cooperative, and common-sense politicians. We get involved, first by VOTING, writing letters to office holders and local media, getting involved in local issues,  visiting office holders local office, town hall meetings, getting to know their local staff, and last, but certainly not least putting together fun FUND raisers for your Representative/Senator whenever convenient for them back home, perhaps at your place of business.  The important point here is to secure financial commitments from LOCAL constituents.  Member of Congress have political staff who will help you conduct fund-raisers legally and appropriately.  This will build your relationship and communication ability in effective and surprising ways.  You will find easier access in future without even mentioning the fundraising activity in part because they will know who you are and understand you are a friend.  In fact, you should not mention fundraisers when in the office to ask the Member for support on an issue.   Believe me, the Member will know!

The Importance of Conveying Respect

To recap: Always treat meetings/staff with RESPECT. Treat the Member as if he/she were your idol since childhood! You cannot massage their egos enough. Regardless of how you feel privately. Do not let push back, deflections, or even a no response deter or change any of above. Continue to smile.  You never know what type of day the Member is having and tomorrow may be completely different, especially if you have built an excellent staff relationship. Keep plugging away on your issue(s), which may be different in future, when you will find much more help from your Representative. Remember, they are political creatures and if for other reasons, they have to say no to you today, for the most part they will try to make it up to you on another issue at another time.  Constituents always come FIRST.

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