We are now two days into OAW 2009 and have been having some great meetings.
One in particular stands out.
When we make the rounds on the Hill, we see a certain local or regional distinctiveness in many of the offices we visit. Sometimes it's just the photos and plaques on the walls, sometimes it's handouts of local products from the district (usually snack food -- peanuts, etc.), but sometimes it's a cultural difference you see in the people you are meeting with. There is no better example of that than the office of a member of Congress representing New York that we saw on Monday.
We sat down with this staffer and immediately experienced that exaggerated stereotype of direct, blunt and frank New York-ness. You would recognize this from the movies, except that he wasn't a fully-armed member of the mafia (that I know of), and his violence towards us wasn't physical, but purely verbal.
The staffer stopped us in our tracks as we were explaining a particular issue and demanded to know what our "ask" was. In other words, "we understand your problem, but what do you want us to do about it?"
This is a simple and obvious question, but the answer isn't always so easy. Some offices are the right place to talk to about introducing a bill into a particular committee, some for making a phone call to open some other important door for you, etc. Not everyone can do the same things for you on every issue.
Having a staffer directly confront you with the question, no matter how bluntly he does it, is a good thing. It forces you to think through the position you are taking and hone the message to that office. Some staffers just politely bob their heads and sit there making a shopping list so that they look like they are taking notes on everything you are saying. This guy was direct, confrontational and abrupt and I'm glad we went to see him. He wanted to know exactly what we want of him and by getting direct and somewhat harsh, he forced us to think it through aloud with him, which ultimately is better both for him and for us.
Of course, I'm glad that all 535 offices aren't as challenging as that New Yorker. If they were, this week would be even more exhausting than it already is.