Saturday, April 19, 2008

Meetings on the Hill

I thought I’d walk you through what these Overseas Americans Week meetings are like. After all, the vast majority of what we do during OAW is run from one office to another talking to staffers, so I should tell you how we do the core of what we’re doing here.

First of all, here’s what we go in with: the basic items are our talking points (our internal OAW notes on what to say on each issue), the “Goals” sheet (which consolidates most of our position papers into a single page), the letter from Representatives Maloney and Wilson inviting their colleagues to join the Americans Abroad Caucus (the “Dear Colleague letter”), and a notetaker’s sheet. Most of us also had a Congressional directory, to be able to look up the Member whose staff we’re about to meet with for such information as party, district, committees, etc., all of which subtly affects what we say in the meeting (for example, a member on the Ways and Means Committee is extremely important to us on tax issues, so in those meetings we make a particular point of getting our tax message across). We all also had a combination of a number of other documents, including more detailed position papers, a packet of media clippings on our issues and a spiral-bound presentation of our issues—a PowerPoint with graphics, charts and other information that came in very handy. In each meeting, we handed out the Goals sheet and then distributed the other documents at our discretion depending on the circumstances; for example, on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, we made sure to give the Dear Colleague letter to just about everyone because it included an invitation to the reception on Wednesday evening.

We started each day at 7:30 or 8:00 am with a planning meeting in the cafeteria beneath the Longworth House Office Building. Then we headed off to a day full of meetings, which generally started on the hour every hour, with between four and eight meetings being conducted by OAW delegation members simultaneously.

In each meeting, the basic idea was to explain our three main issues (voting, tax and Caucus) and make it clear exactly what we were asking for (support our voting legislation, support our tax legislation and join our Caucus). In so doing, we tried to stick to consistent messages on each, which we agreed upon in advance. On voting, the basic issue is one of equality (i.e., we want to be able to vote as readily as Americans living in the U.S.); on tax, our issue is economic development and jobs back home (i.e., taxing overseas citizens makes it difficult for American companies to send people out in the world to open up new markets, which is bad for business and ultimately affects jobs back home); and on the Caucus, our message is that we are constituents who need a voice (i.e., since our votes are spread out across all 50 states and all 435 districts, we don’t have effective representation on the Hill and need them to join the Caucus to give us that representation).

A lot of people are curious to know what sort of reception we receive in these meetings. I have heard a lot about previous OAWs from before I was involved (I started doing this in 2006). It seems that OAW delegations received a more negative reception in previous years because I have seen very little of that during my three OAWs. From what I am told, in previous years, OAWers were sometimes treated very poorly. I have seen little of that reaction from people on the Hill, making me think that our years of visits have had an effect.

There was one meeting this year where we received a reaction at the extreme positive end of the spectrum. As the OAWers entered the meeting, the staffer told them, through a huge smile, that she would soon be an overseas American herself. She had just been accepted to the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. She said that when she received our meeting request to discuss issues affecting overseas Americans, she took it as a sign of “the will of God.” Wow, that’s a good reaction. I wasn’t in that particular meeting, so the best reaction I’ve ever gotten is a glowing reference to one of our supporters in Congress. I am frequently told that the person is thrilled to talk to us because they love Congressman Joe Wilson, who co-chairs the Americans Abroad Caucus and represents my hometown of Hilton Head. But I’m sure Congressman Wilson would agree with me that attributing our visit to the will of God is several big steps up in terms of name-dropping.

The only negative reaction I received this year was during one of the first few meetings I did on Monday with James Kigin, who is new to OAW this year and was getting his first taste of lobbying. We sat down in the meeting, started our explanation of the voting issue and were immediately interrupted with, “well, just to play the devil’s advocate…” We then spent half an hour getting “well, just to play the devil’s advocate…” on each and every one of our issues. She hit us with so many devil’s advocate arguments that she left me wondering, does the devil really need an advocate? And if he does, does that advocate have to be in my meeting? As we left, James turned over the notetaker’s sheet and pointed at the line where we had to circle one word for an overall indication of the reaction we received: negative, neutral, positive, strong or champion. James looked at me and said something to the effect of, “is negative a strong enough word for her?” to which I suggested that, actually, we just might have to create a new category. After all, she advocated for the devil throughout the whole meeting. So we had one meeting with a staffer name-dropping God and another with a staffer name-dropping the devil. I didn’t see either of those coming.

Some people have asked me a lot of questions about who we actually meet with when we go into these offices. On rare occasions, we meet with a Representative or a Senator. Thanks to James, who is a constituent, he and I met with Senator Klobuchar of Minnesota, as part of a weekly reception that she holds for Minnesotans. And I shook hands with probably eight or ten Representatives during the week, although in each of those cases the meeting itself was actually handled by the staffers. In most cases, this is fine, since the staffers tend to be extremely competent and specialized in the areas we are concerned about. This is particularly the case for tax, where there is always one particular staffer who handles taxation issues.

Sometimes it’s hard to figure out even who the right staffer is, though. One OAWer this week called for a last minute meeting with the voting staffer in a particular office. The receptionist said, “oh, uh, ok, I guess that would be the forestry and natural resources staffer, right?” “What’s natural resources have to do with voting?” the OAWer asked. “Oh! I thought you said boating!”

In a few cases, you just take what you can get and hope for the best. We occasionally meet with the Chief of Staff or the Legislative Director, but generally meet with a Legislative Assistant handing foreign affairs. LAs are usually very competent, interested and helpful, but you do occasionally get someone else and feel as though you’ve been stuck with the bottom-feeder in the office; not the high-level, mid-level or even low-level staffer specialized in your issue, but instead the chimp-level staffer who generally has a lot in common with our species, but somehow lingers just below our level on the hierarchy of primates. Don’t get too discouraged by this, though: I had this happen in maybe five of my fifty or so meetings and I had the opposite extreme of competence in far more meetings.

So when you notice that your staffer is only speaking in grunts, spends most of the meeting picking at fleas and ticks and gazes rapaciously at the plastic fruit on the table, you just say, as gently as possible, “could you pass along our materials to someone who knows how to . . . read?” If he or she smiles and nods, then the Goals sheet just might make its way up a level to a legislative correspondent or a deputy-adjunct-legislation-assistant’s aide. Or it could just get to another chimp. You never know.

Another interesting thing is where we meet with the staffers. The word “lobbying” is derived from the fact that most such conversations happen right there in the lobby. Some actually take place in the Member’s office if he or she is not around or in other rooms in the Member’s office suite. But sometimes you end up in little nooks and crannies without even a chair or table. Sometimes when there are too many people floating around in the Member’s office suite, the staffer will take you out in the hallway and just find a little free space to stand around out there to talk for a few minutes. Of course, we couldn’t care less—all we care about is getting that crucial 10 to 15 minutes that it takes to lay out our issues. Anything else—a long meeting of 30-45 minutes or a nice place to hold that meeting—is pure gravy as long as we’ve gotten our chance to explain our main subjects, educating one staffer at a time on the issues most important to overseas Americans.

One final note about our meetings – at least a few times during each OAW, we have unscheduled encounters with staffers and Members in the most unexpected of situations. On Thursday, James Kigin and I were walking across the Cannon House Office Building and bumped into Congressman Joe Wilson and his staffer Paul Callahan. Paul is a friend of mine and is our liaison to Joe for all issues involving the Caucus. Paul told us that he and Congressman Wilson were about to receive the Vice President of Afghanistan as he arrived on Capitol Hill. He invited us to join them, so there we were five minutes later, with Congressman Wilson and the Vice President of Afghanistan, who spoke only Farsi and therefore had an interpreter by his side. I never would have thought that my schedule that day was going to include greeting and having my photo taken with a foreign leader, but interesting things happen on Capitol Hill.

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