Fly-in season is almost upon us again! The annual Capitol Hill ritual mostly runs from January to about June, with thousands of associations, nonprofits and corporations flying supporters in to meet with members of Congress and their staffs. Groups invest enormous resources in these events and the meetings dominate the schedules of congressional offices.
For groups, conducting a successful fly-in is like doing three things at once. It’s like directing a play — you have a script, an agenda and performers (speakers) lined up for your attendees. It’s also like hosting a party — you have to order food, get RSVPs and make sure everyone is happy (especially management or your board of directors). But it’s the third aspect that is most important: It’s like running a campaign.
You’re trying to get as many people (in Congress) as possible to adopt a position you support. The problem with these events is that logistical demands crowd out the legislative goals, and by the third day you’re pulling your hair out and mumbling to yourself, “I just want these people gone and my life back!”
Over the years, the Congressional Management Foundation has fielded a share of complaints from congressional staff regarding some of the practices grass-roots groups engage in. (Note to grass-roots groups: Members of Congress won’t tell you if you did something dumb — remember, they’re politicians and you represent constituents.) So the CMF decided to survey House chiefs of staff to identify good and bad practices with the hope of educating groups. A successful member-constituent meeting isn’t just good for your group — it genuinely helps the public policy process by providing Congress with insight on how lawmakers’ decisions affect citizens.
First, groups need to improve the quality of the materials provided on these visits, sometimes called leave-behinds. In our survey, only about one-third of the House staff said that “most materials left behind by groups ... are helpful.” When asked the ideal length of material, the magical number seemed to be two pages. Four out of five staffers said a five-page report or longer was not very helpful. In fact, staff would actually like to receive the material prior to the meeting. Think read-ahead, not leave-behind. Why? “We have to do a memo for each meeting that our boss reads prior to the meeting,” said one chief of staff.
After the meeting, you’re all done for another year ... right? Wrong. Relationships require attention, in both love and politics. The successful groups encourage their supporters to interact with Congress throughout the year. The current House schedule makes this significantly easier, with 11 district work periods already planned for the next year. In our recent survey, when asked whether their bosses preferred meeting with constituents in the state or in D.C., 71 percent said “no preference.” “Often in D.C. meetings get disrupted more than we’d like,” said one chief of staff.
The survey also offered chiefs of staff the opportunity to vent a little. We asked about pet peeves with these constituent meetings, and by far the dominant complaint was reserved for groups that claimed constituents would be in the meeting but then brought non-constituents instead. “Often times, it feels like groups are deceptive about whether or not they have constituents coming.”
Finally, we also surfaced a rare but serious concern — the inexperienced advocate who references a campaign contribution. One Senate legislative director told the CMF the story of a constituent explicitly mentioning the group contributed to the senator after the legislative director failed to make a commitment on the group’s request. The staffer excused herself from the meeting, and asked the visitors to wait. A few minutes later the senator himself appeared and said, as he personally kicked them out of the office, “I’m sending back your check.” That incident happened more than a decade ago, the group has never been allowed back and the senator is still in office.
A bad fly-in meeting is more than just awkward; it can irreparably damage a key relationship on Capitol Hill for years.
Bradford Fitch is the president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation.