Opinion: A Survival Guide For The Lobbying Fly-In

January 30, 2017       Jatrice Martel Gaiter      

My first hill day, now called fly-ins, was during the late 1980s. I am still moved by the stirring testament to our democracy and dedication to missions they represent.

“Visiting Capitol Hill is akin to being at the airport. It is best to arrive early, expect last-minute changes and delays and be of good cheer,” communication expert Ed Barks advised association executives.

Sometimes nonprofit staff and volunteers come to Washington D.C. to participate in a fly-in or hill day without the advance information they really need. While most public policy staff focus on talking points and name badges, the survival skills are often excluded.

First, your shoes are the most important aspect of your day. The floors are marble, hard and cruel to most feet. Find your most comfortable shoes to wear, not your most fashionable. Do not wear new shoes; wear an old faithful pair. If you are a woman over 25 or weigh more than 100 pounds, wear flats. If you take away anything at all — wear flats!

Look at the weather forecast. On a hill day, it is likely that you will have to stand outside in a line to get through security on the House side. It could be rainy and cold, or the heat and humidity will wilt you and your energy.

Empty your pockets or your purse of all items that will not make it through security such as pepper spray, pocket knife, scissors, bottled liquids or guns. Take the change out of your pockets. If you hold up the line, you will be reviled and scorned by the people behind you.

The elevators. Remember that members of Congress have designated elevators so they can get to vote quickly. Some of the elevators can be confusing.

You and your colleagues might get lost. Capitol Hill can be a labyrinth. People who work on the Hill still get lost. If you get turned around, ask a Capitol Police officer for directions. They are generally very helpful.

Discretion is paramount. When you are on the elevator and when you are in the office lobby waiting for the Member or staff, please do not discuss strategy, disparage any politician at all, or share internal organization matters.

The meeting will be short, about 20 minutes is generally the rule.  The member of Congress might drop in for a few minutes and leave the bulk of the conversation to staff.  If you want to take a picture, be prepared and quick. Do not spend time fumbling with the cell phone or camera and do not take a long time posing your colleagues.   

When you finally get to your meeting, you may talk with a staff person who appears to be young because they are. If your senator or member of Congress is unable to meet with you personally, you will meet with their staff.  Members of Congress often have changing and erratic schedules that are beyond their control.   Votes, breaking issues and surprises may call your representative away.

The average age of a Congressional staff member is 27. Millennials rule on Capitol Hill. Underestimate the staff based on their youth at your own peril. They are trusted advisors and issue experts who are taken seriously by their bosses.

There are not a lot of meeting rooms on the Hill. Your meetings might take place in the hallway, the office entrance or in a room with files. I have met with staff in the ladies room, the hallway and in dark meeting rooms.

The last important item is food and water. There are cafeterias in the Rayburn House Office Building, as well as the Cannon and Dirksen Senate buildings. You will have to bus your own tray and eat cafeteria food … and you will like it!

Remember these guidelines and your issue talking points and you will have a fabulous meeting.

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Jatrice Martel Gaiter is executive vice president, external affairs for Volunteers of America in Alexandria, Va. Her email is jmgaiter@voa.org

  • Capitol Hill
  • Visiting Capitol Hill