Congressional town hall meetings are erupting in violence over the health care issue. A lobbying firm for the coal industry forged letters supposedly from local groups unhappy with climate change legislation. It seems that grassroots lobbying is getting a bad rap these days.
But that shouldn't discourage animal advocates from being in touch with their members of Congress, especially as lawmakers have just recessed for the summer and are now back home for the district work period. Some special interests might resort to loud confrontations and phony "Astroturf" lobbying, but the animal protection cause has real stories to tell and real people who care about the issue.
August is a great time to meet with your federal legislators
to urge support for animal protection bills.
When it comes to grassroots advocacy, it's a question of quality, not quantity. My friend Stephanie Vance wrote on her blog "that just one high quality, thoughtful communication will have more of an impact on a legislator than 10 or 20 or 100 lukewarm communications--no matter whose name is on the letterhead."
I've previously provided some tips for citizen lobbying and urged advocates not to forget about district office meetings. Now that August recess is here, I hope you'll take the opportunity to visit your members of Congress and their staff at home in your community, and talk to them about why animal protection legislation is important to you.
I'm going to reprint a few tips that you can keep handy, whether you're making a phone call or visiting them in person to make your case. Because one individual telling a personal story about an important issue is much more effective than all the town hall mobs and Astroturf groups out there.
Identify yourself. Whether you're calling to register your opinion, or visiting a legislative office in person, start by telling them who you are. Make sure to tell them where you live so they know you're a constituent. (Typically, you only contact your own legislators, unless it's a special circumstance such as a committee chairman.) And let them know if you are a member of an organization or have a tie to some other stakeholder--such as HSUS, teachers, sheriffs, or veterinarians.
Be polite and professional.This is common sense, but always worth repeating. You can state your views firmly and forcefully without being hostile or argumentative. Always be friendly and courteous, even if the legislator disagrees with your position. Don't interrupt or scream out at legislative hearings. And while it's important to be professional, it's also important to look professional--legislators and their staff are more likely to be persuaded by people in business attire or some other natty dressware than people wearing cut-off jeans and flip-flops.
State a clear and concise objective. Stay focused on the purpose of your phone call or meeting, and don't wander off in too many directions. Let them know up front what you are asking them to do, and refer to bills by their numbers and names--such as, "I want Representative Smith to co-sponsor H.R. 503, the Prevention of Equine Cruelty Act." Be sure to explain any jargon that might be unclear, such as "puppy mills," "canned hunts," "pound seizure," or "Class B dealers." It's okay to bring up more than one bill in a meeting, but you may want to limit your list to two or three bills that are most important to you.
Explain why this issue is important to you personally. Lawmakers are interested in data and statistics, but they're much more interested in how an issue affects their constituents personally. If you have a story to tell, it's much more compelling than charts and graphs. If you're talking about dogfighting, you might be an animal control or animal shelter worker who has seen injured pit bulls, or a police officer who has seen the connection that dogfighters have to drugs and violence in your community. If you're advocating for antifreeze legislation, it might be because you had a dog who was poisoned by drinking the sweet-tasting liquid. If you're a teacher or parent, you might comment on the impact animal cruelty has on children. Tell your story.
Don't use form letters.Legislators want to know what you have to say, not just that you can cut and paste. They know when it's a form letter, period. It's okay to use talking points and language from advocacy groups like The HSUS and HSLF when you craft your letters, but it's best to put them into your own words.
Use the web and email effectively. Visit legislators' official web sites before your meetings, so you can learn in advance about their background, biographical information, positions on issues, and even their pets. If you send email through advocacy web sites such as humanesociety.org and hslf.org, remember to edit that part of the letter that allows you to put it into your own words. You can also send email and register comments through the legislator's own web site. Phone calls are usually taken more seriously by legislative offices, so if you do send email, you can still follow up with a phone call, too.
Never lie or mislead. The truth for animals is harsh enough, and you don't need to embellish. If you make up facts and figures or stretch the truth, it will always come back to haunt you. Don't be afraid to say you don't know the answer to a question, and offer to look it up for them later or put them in touch with someone who might know. You're not expected to be an expert on every issue--you are a citizen who cares and has an opinion.
Work with legislative staff. Don't be offended if you can't get the legislator on the phone or get a meeting with him or her personally. Lawmakers rely on their staff to meet with constituents, draft legislation, learn the issues, and make policy recommendations. The staff will have more time to get to know you and your issues, and they are your gateway to the elected officials. Get to know the staff and develop relationships, so they will begin to view you as a source of reliable information on animal issues in your community.
Be prepared to compromise. Legislators may not do what you want 100 percent of the time, but they can still help advance the cause of animal protection. If you discuss three bills and they agree to support two, you've made progress. Don't expect complete orthodoxy. A legislator might agree to vote for a bill when it comes to the floor, but doesn't want to be a co-sponsor for political reasons--a vote in the hand is better than two co-sponsorships in the bush.
Listen to elected officials' comments and questions. Don't expect to give a monologue on animal protection. Let them react to the issues you raise, and have a conversation. Their comments and questions will give you cues on how to frame your arguments and what additional information might be useful. If they ask questions or need more information, it gives you an opportunity to follow up with them after your meeting.
Thank someone who was helpful. Always thank a staff member who took the time to meet with you, and follow up with any additional information that's needed. And if a legislator does what you've requested, such as co-sponsor or vote for a bill, be sure to thank him or her for taking that action. Positive reinforcement is the most effective way to develop a good relationship for future issues.