Town hall meetings held by Members of Congress in 2017 have been one part theater, two parts protest, and usually three parts crazy. Normally about 20 to 40 constituents attend the average town hall meeting held by a House member. But with the new administration, citizens have been showing up to them in the hundreds or even the thousands. The media has focused on those meetings which are most raucous. (Why cover an event where an elected official and constituents have a calm conversation on public policy?) And, indeed, many citizens come to these events not to have a conversation, but to vent. At a recent town hall meeting, a man came with a sign, “I didn’t come here to listen to you. I came here to yell!”
Yet my experience is that town hall meetings can actually be wonderful opportunities for an exchange of ideas. I learned this not only through the research conducted by the Congressional Management Foundation (CMF), but as a young aide working in Congress. The best political education I got didn’t come from a graduate school course, or even from working the committee rooms of Capitol Hill in Washington during my time as a congressional aide. My best lessons came when I had to travel off “the Hill” and attended my congressman’s town hall meetings.
As a press secretary to a suburban Maryland congressman in the 1980s and 1990s, I worked the legislative issues by day and went to more than 100 town hall meetings at night. It was at the VFW Hall in Glen Burnie, Maryland, and other venues like it, that I truly learned how to influence legislators. I saw first-hand how constituents could press their case face-to-face with their Member of Congress, which strategies got our attention, and which arguments led the congressman to say in the car ride home, “we have to look into that person’s issue tomorrow.”
Surveys of congressional staff confirm town hall meetings’ value. CMF recently conducted a survey of more than 200 senior congressional staff and asked, “In your opinion, how important is each for understanding constituents’ views and opinions?” Near the top of the list, 82 percent of staff noted that “in-person town hall meetings” would be somewhat or very important. So what does both the quantitative and anecdotal data suggest are the best ways to use town hall meetings to advance your legislative agenda?
Here is my top ten list for how to engage lawmakers at Town Hall Meetings:
1. Be Prepared
Most people don’t hit their Member of Congress with a well-researched, well-rehearsed pitch. They just say what they think – which has value. But those that come to town hall meetings with thoughtful arguments, good data, and persuasive stories are more likely to be remembered. If you’re a member of a trade association or part of a nonprofit network, reach out to your DC office to get the building blocks of great talking points.
2. Tell a Personal Story
This is why Members of Congress hold town hall meetings – to get first-hand accounts of the impact of policies on their constituents. Think in advance of how a policy might affect you, your family, your business, or your community. Whether the congressman supports you or not, they want to hear your story.
3. Use Numbers If You Have Them
Politicians live for one thing: 50% plus 1. This keeps them re-elected and in a job. Nearly every person to come before a Member of Congress represents other constituents, either by a class or as a spokesperson. Use those numbers. “I have 50 employees,” “I represent 100 people in my union,” “There are 500 people in my community that think just like me.” The legislator is trying to do the math the minute you stand up – make it easy for her
4. Be Respectful
You’d be surprised how many people start a conversation with, “I pay your salary, so you better listen to me.” It doesn’t matter if you’re talking to your grocer or a public official — starting any conversation with another person in a rude manner is no way to persuade them. Members of Congress want to hear your views, you don’t need to badger them to get your message through. Many citizens are using a new guide written by former congressional staff, “Indivisible.” Something readers may have missed in the guide: the word “protest” appears five times; the word “polite” appears seven times.
5. Go in Groups
Nothing says “listen to me” to a public official like a mob (of course, a polite one). This is not to suggest that you should bring pitch forks and torches to your next town hall meeting. But a chorus is better than a solo performance. Said another way, without friends, you risk looking like the “loner nut” that sometimes dominates the meeting.
6. Talk to Staff
Every congressman brings staff to town hall meetings. They may seem to blend into the woodwork, but a sharp citizen seeks them out. Talk to them before the meeting; get their business card; tell them your story (as well as asking a public question at the meeting). Nearly all congressional town hall meetings are attended by a senior staffer in the office, the State Director or District Director. This is a rich opportunity to build a relationship with someone who has the Senator’s ear.
7. Leave Paper
Town hall meetings are usually staffed by district-office staff who do not deal with legislative issues on a daily basis. If you leave background memos or talking points, they’ll likely be shared with the Washington office and the legislative assistant who covers your issue.
8. Follow-up Politely
Politely persistent people persuade politicians. Congressional offices are harried, so they often respond to the squeaky wheel, the one who just follows up with a phone call after attending a town hall meeting.
9. Demonstrate You’re Not Going Away
If you continue to show your presence at town hall meetings, the legislator must deal with you…if only to avoid an uncomfortable encounter at a future town hall meeting.
10. Use Other Means to Communicate
The town hall meeting is only one way available to citizens to build relationships with lawmakers – and the key to any long term strategy is relationship building. CMF’s latest report supports this concept, “Citizen-Centric Advocacy: The Untapped Power of Constituent Engagement.” This research, built on 12 years of data and surveys working with congressional offices, offers a roadmap to citizens who genuinely wish to influence public policy. By recognizing that their voices makes a difference, and using those voices in a variety of vehicles and strategies – including town hall meetings – citizens will realize that interacting with Congress can be rewarding, insightful, and successful!