Actually doing it . . .
Now that your message is clear and your board and volunteers are excited, now what?
Remember that legis.state.pa.us website? On the home page, use this link to look up your state representatives, then look up who represents the district where your organization has its headquarters, and set a date to look up every volunteer’s state representative. Even if your goal is corporate or local change, it is always helpful to loop in your state representatives. They often have deep ties and connections in the community and can help introduce you to the right people quickly. Plus, district office staff often hold other positions, which can help increase your pitch reach.
In-person meetings are always best but many people are nervous about going. Here is a simple checklist of things to remember to make your meeting a success.
Legislative meeting checklist:
- Call the district office and ask for an in-person meeting, check the legis.state.pa.us website first and know when session days are, also check the schedule and be aware that most district offices have 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. operations. If you can’t make a daytime meeting, ask if there are any upcoming town hall meetings or other evening times that you can attend to get a few minutes to speak.
- Review the fact sheet you developed – the one that contains the big points and the basic information you want to convey. Bring extra copies of this and your white paper and make sure to provide this messaging packet to your volunteers so that you’ll all be on point and consistent with your messaging. Find time to rehearse if helpful!
- Arrive early (but not excessively early) and be prepared to wait. These offices are busy and urgent issues come up all the time. Do not be surprised or impatient if you are asked to wait.
- Do not be offended if you end up meeting with a staff member. Remember, legislators are incredibly busy and often only have a few minutes even if they do have a chance to take the meeting. Staff are often the ones who will put in the effort and write support letters, add the members to a co-sponsorship memo, and brief or research the issues. Be respectful of everyone in the office and remember that the staff member you are meeting with probably spends a lot more time with the member than anyone else. Make an advocate out of them, and they will expand your efforts exponentially.
- Leave materials behind for the member to reference later especially if they are interested and want to talk to their colleagues.
- Secure business cards for everyone you meet with – and send a thank you for the meeting either electronically or by mail. Following up with an invite to your next event is another great way to reinforce your message and make another contact.
- Follow up, but only as you have new information such as a bill sponsor selected, a committee meeting scheduled, etc. Be present, but not a pest.
Research the committees that may be asked to review your issue
You can find the list of committees in the Pennsylvania legislature using these links to the House Committees and Senate Committees. Bills are assigned by subject matter, so check out who is on those committees and who is chairing the committees that are likely to be assigned any bills that your organization is supporting. Set meetings with the chairs and as many members of these committees as you can, especially if you have supporters and people served who live in their districts!
Select a sponsor and help to recruit co-sponsors
Bills need sponsors, and you’ll want to select one and support the sponsor’s work by helping to recruit co-sponsors. A committee chair is always a great sponsor as they have the power to move the bill immediately, so they are often a first target. However, this means they are often inundated with requests and many committee chairs prefer to be magnanimous and share bills with other members of the committee. So, if you have not identified a legislator who is already super passionate about your issue, check in with the committee chair about who would be a good sponsor, if not themselves. At the very least, asking the chair for their guidance gets them thinking about the issue and helps them feel a sense of ownership even if your bill won’t ultimately be sponsored by them.
Once the bill you are supporting has a sponsor, that sponsor will author a co-sponsorship memo asking their legislator colleagues to pledge public support for the issue by adding their names to the bill. This is unique to legislative efforts but essentially is a statement from legislators that if the bill’s main sponsor is unable to carry the bill (for example, they have won an election to higher office and are leaving the legislature), they (the co-sponsors) would be willing to step in and have the bill assigned to them as the prime sponsor and otherwise continue to support the bill. Legislative staff for the sponsor drafts the memo but this is when that messaging you did comes in handy as a big lift for the sponsor. Those points you made in your messaging materials can be incorporated directly into the legislative memo, which ensures consistency and accuracy. These memos are public record and can be referenced by the press and also serve as the foundation of the legislator’s publication of the issue. Co-sponsorship drives are very meaningful as they ground your advocacy and can show the breadth of support for a bill. A bill introduced with a long list of co-sponsors shows that there are enough votes to pass the bill and makes a strong case for committee consideration, so roll up your sleeves and mobilize your supporters for those few weeks between when the memo is circulated to the legislature and when the bill is actually introduced to set meetings and calls and get co-sponsors on board!
Support the bill drafting process
As the co-sponsorship memo is circulating, the bill language is finalized. It is possible that if you have language drafted by your board or that if you have adapted language from another state that it will be used either in whole or in part to create the bill. You can also bring the subject to the attention of the legislature and rely on their staff to draft the bill.
If you have developed language that you like, by all means offer it up, but try not to be offended if that language is changed. Lots of different viewpoints are taken into consideration when legislation is made and it is important to remain flexible but also to have clearly identified what matters most for your cause – and what compromise you can live with. Don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good (sometimes ‘good enough’ gets the job done and can be meaningful progress). Having a clearly defined goal from the outset and reminding yourself often what that goal is can be especially helpful through this process. Remember that the objective is to move the needle on accomplishing the goal regardless of the form it takes. The legislature has staff and attorneys who are experts in the law, and they know how to draft legislation and know the proper form it needs to take, so learn from them and take their suggestions.
Be very wary of model laws. There are many organizations who do a fantastic job of creating model language that is terrific, but Pennsylvania is a jurisdiction with many archaic and complex legal structures and often the model laws that work just fine in other states don’t work at all here. If you are working on a model law, be especially prepared to review changes. Again, review them with an eye toward whether or not they accomplish your goal, not whether they look like the language you originally suggested. This especially applies if you are working with an attorney. Very few law schools teach legislative drafting and even fewer students actually take such courses. Understanding and interpreting the law and writing legislation are two very different things!