As Americans and Vermonters, we’re expected to participate in the democratic process, including influencing the legislative process. Skilled and active grassroots activists help shape the political agenda of elected officials. The most fundamental and effective way to influence the legislative process is by voicing your opinion and concerns to elected officials — also known as lobbying.
Nothing impresses Legislators as much as citizens willing to make a personal visit. Whether it’s to discuss local issues or state topics, individuals or groups who make the effort to speak to their mind in person are worth platoons of lobbyists in Montpelier. Additionally, the unusual design of the Vermont legislature allows citizens to speak directly to their representatives, instead of getting turned away by secretaries or other staff members.
Your visit should accomplish both short-term and long-term goals. Short-term goals include persuading your representative or senator to vote on the pro-environmental side of an issue, cosponsor a bill, or introduce legislation. Long-term goals include developing a relationship with your elected officials and educating them on larger issues.
When you meet with representatives, you take with you two messages. The first is substantive: “Please cosponsor H.264, the Renewable Energy Bill; or, please sign on to our letter.” The second is political and you deliver that message by simply walking through the door: that there are people willing to take the time to present their views in person is a very powerful political message.
While it helps to know the substance of an issue, particularly when talking about local or state causes, constituents are not expected to know every detail of a piece of legislation. However, the other message, the political message, always gets delivered, and that’s very important.
How to Lobby
Once a bill is introduced, contact the appropriate elected officials and express your support or opposition to it. If you support the bill, encourage him or her to cosponsor the legislation. Be sure to explain why you support or oppose the bill or amendment-you may help to educate the member by articulating a viewpoint he or she has not considered.
Most of the modifications made to a bill are done at the committee level. As a result, the committee has significant influence over the specific language of a bill and when or if it goes to the floor. If your Representative and/or Senator is a member of the committee where a bill has been referred, they can be particularly influential in passing a measure or making important changes to the legislation. Even if your Representative or Senator is not on a relevant committee, share a copy of the letter you sent him or her with members of that committee. By voicing your opinions while the bill is still in committee you can help get an effective bill to the floor or stop a bad measure early.
When a bill reaches the floor for debate and a vote, encourage your Representative to take a leadership role by expressing his or her views during the debate. He or she may be influential in swinging the vote of other uncertain members.
Oddly enough, elected officials rarely receive words of thanks. By taking the time to thank them for something good that they have done, you reinforce the importance of the issue and encourage them to stand up and speak out on future issues.
Etiquette While Lobbying
- Be on time, dress formally and be polite. Never threaten your Member of Congress and never insult elected officials.
- Be sure to introduce yourselves at the outset of the meeting. State your reasons for seeking the meeting. Compliment them for work done and concerns expressed in the past. This may be a social formality but it will start the meeting off on a pleasant note.
- Be assertive and speak about your issue with conviction, not hostility.
- Show how serious you are about your issue. Know the facts. Never overstate or exaggerate your case. Doing so may put you in the position of having to answer questions you don’t have honest answers to. Be able to back up everything you say or risk losing your credibility.
- Listen carefully to questions asked. Don’t try to dominate the meeting. Use this meeting as an opportunity to gather information. Be open to questions and respond with hard facts and a sense of understanding.
- Don’t overstay your welcome. Be able to give your lobbying pitch in five minutes or less. Cover your key points thoroughly and early. If the official is enjoying the meeting and lets it run over, fine. But be prepared to complete your agenda in the time allotted.
- Follow up with a thank-you letter, and provide any information you promised during the meeting.
- Use these opportunities to continue to build a relationship with your elected official. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t see eye to eye with your representative on every issue; there’s always another piece of legislation down the road that he or she may be helpful on. If you don’t get the answer you want, keep trying. Persistence is the key.
Writing to Your Elected Officials
Surprisingly few people ever write to their elected officials. Perhaps 90% of Americans live and die without ever taking pen in hand and expressing a single opinion to the person who represents them in Congress and the Legislature. Yet that representative’s vote may decide what price they will pay for the acts of government: in dollars, in human lives, or in the quality of our environment.
Writing to your elected officials is easier than you think. In fact, it’s one of the simplest and most effective ways to influence public policy on behalf of the environment.
Here are a few tips to help you along the way:
- Identify the Bill or Issue – Over 1,000 bills are introduced into the Vermont State Legislature each year, so it is important to be specific. If you write about a particular piece of legislation, try to give the bill’s number or describe it by a popular title (“Septic Bill”, “Renewable Energy Bill”, “Act 250″).
- Make Your Letter Timely – Inform your elected officials while there is still time for them to take action.
- Focus on Your Own Delegation – As a constituent, your views are most valued by the Members of Congress and Legislators who depend on you for re-election. Focus your energy on your House members and Senators.
- Be Reasonably Brief – Keep your letter concise and to the point. Try to limit it to one issue. It is not necessary that letters be typed – only that they be legible.
- Ask for a Response – If your elected official is vague in his or her response, write again and request clarification. Don’t hesitate to ask questions. Your elected official works for you. Don’t sound demanding or threatening, however.
- Give your Reasons for Taking a Stand – Your representative may not know all the effects of the bill and what it may mean to an important segment of his or her constituency.
- Show Understanding – Try to show awareness of how the proposed legislation would affect not just the environment, but also your community and other people’s health and jobs.
- Be Constructive – If a bill deals with a problem you admit exists, but you believe it takes the wrong approach, offer your elected official an alternative.
- Ask for Specific Action – If your questions or concerns are general (i.e., “I hope you are for renewable energy”) you will most likely receive a form letter. Ask for specific action, such as co-sponsoring a bill or supporting an amendment.
- Share Expert Knowledge With your Representative – No one can possibly be an expert in all fields; many constituents are experts in some of them. Legislators welcome expert advice and counsel.
- Use Personal or Business Letterhead Whenever Possible – Be sure to include a complete return address on the letter and envelope.
- Say “Well Done” When it is Deserved – Members of Congress are human too, and they appreciate an occasional “well done” from people who believe they have done the right thing. But even if you think your representative went wrong on an issue, a non-threatening letter stating your disagreement would be welcome; it may help on another issue later.
Ways to Contact Vermont’s Congressional Leaders
- Write a note! The most powerful message you can send comes in the form of a hand-written note!
- Call. Leave a message with your Senator or Representative. Leave your name, where you’re from and your number with a short, concise message, like “please support strong energy and climate change legislation as key to strengthening Vermont’s economy and protecting our environment.”
- Send an email. Write a quick email to your lawmaker. Let them know you are concerned.
The Honorable Senator Patrick Leahy
PO Box 933
87 State Street, Room 338
Montpelier, VT 05601
The Honorable Senator Bernie Sanders
1 Church St. 2nd floor
Burlington, VT 05401
The Honorable Congressman Peter Welch
30 Main Street
Third Floor, Suite 350
Burlington, VT 05401