Monday, March 25, 2013

5 Ways to Help Your Congressional Liaison

By: Chris Trent, Mar. 25, 2013

I’d like to introduce you to someone: your agency’s Congressional Liaison. She might have any of a variety of phrases in her title, such as “Legislative Specialist” or “Intergovernmental Affairs,” but I’ll just call her the same thing I call myself.

What does your Congressional Liaison do exactly? Well, it can vary. Some are strategic advisors who provide political counsel to the agency. Others draft and review legislation that impacts your agency’s mission. She may be segregated from the budget office or closely aligned with it. She may work hand in glove with your public affairs office or be totally aloof from it. What all Congressional Liaisons have in common is their peculiar audience: Capitol Hill.

photo of U.S. Capitol
via Flickr, from Architect of the Capitol, U.S. Gov't work
Your Congressional Liaison should be involved in strategic planning from the beginning. If the ultimate goal is to have something happen on the Hill she’ll guide you along the most effective path. She may, conversely, advise that the Hill should not be your goal at all, saving your organization months or even years of misdirected effort. Work with your Congressional Liaison and she’ll help you put your best foot forward.

If you don’t know your agency’s Congressional Liaison, locate her and introduce yourself. If you are your agency’s Congressional Liaison, please attend our meetings every second Tuesday at the secret cave under Union Station. Just kidding! Please share your own experiences in the comments.

Five Ways You Can Help Your Congressional Liaison

1. Remember this maxim: Timeliness > Thoroughness
Although bills take many years to progress from being introduced to being signed into law, the nakedly political environment means that all information is needed ASAP. No matter how good the information is, it’s useless if it’s delivered after the vote.

This is not to say that you should fudge the facts to get your Congressional Liaison information faster. You should, however, appreciate that the information is more important than the formatting. Just get the answers she needs, and let her worry about how to phrase it.

2. Be aware of your unknown unknowns
Assuming there are no Canadians reading this, we all enjoy a Constitutional right to petition our Government (even if we are the very employees charged with processing such petitions). However, although I encourage all of you to exercise your rights, have the humility to know that you may not be aware of all the details of what’s happening on the Hill.

One of your Congressional Liaison’s duties is to keep your agency from stepping in it, so to speak. If she suggests that perhaps a different course of action is warranted, hear her out.

3. Be a source of local intel
Notwithstanding the previous suggestion, your Congressional Liaison also may not be fully briefed on the details of a given issue. If there are local advocates who feel strongly, or a mayor who’s been railing against your agency, let your Congressional Liaison know.

It may not be immediately apparent how such information is pertinent, but one never knows how the web of public opinion will connect to Capitol Hill.

4. Treat all communications as if they were going up to the Hill
They used to say, “Don’t write anything you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of the Washington Post.” This does not mean that your Congressional Liaison needs to review every single tweet. It does mean that communications should pass the sniff test. This is a habit we should all develop for every sort of communication, from emails to press releases.

Any communication, for good reasons or for bad, can end up in the hands of a Member of Congress at any time; edit accordingly.

5. Think of Congress as more than an ATM
Too often I hear colleagues lament that Congress is not doing its job of funding the Federal Government. Appropriating funds from the Treasury is one of Congress’s jobs. It does this, however, by writing laws. This is why it’s called the Legislative Branch, not the Bookkeeping Branch.

In my opinion, Congress is like a standing focus group for America. Treat it like as a source of information, not just appropriations. If you really want to know how your agency is meeting its mission, Congress will let you know.

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