Personal relationships with Members of Congress are the most powerful tool you have to affect change. Establishing that personal relationship in a one-on-one meeting is more valuable than any phone call or email. As a business leader in the community that they represent, your voice is important. And taking the time out of your busy schedule to meet with your representative demonstrates how important the issue in question is to you.
Have an appointment
Whether in the District office or in Washington, D.C., if you want a meeting with a Member of Congress or their staff you must make an appointment. They will not turn away constituents, but to guarantee a meeting an appointment is mandatory.
Every Congressional office will have a staff member that handles scheduling. Fax or email a meeting request to the attention of the scheduler, and follow up with a telephone call. More often than not, requests not made in writing are ignored. Send the request on company letterhead to make it look as professional as possible.
It is OK to meet with a Legislative Staffer instead of the Member
Quite often any appointment will be with the legislative staffer that handles the particular issue you are interested in and may or may not include the Member. Do not be put off by this. The staffers are writing the legislation and advising the member on how to vote. The Member cannot be an expert in all fields and industries. They rely on staffers to be their eyes and ears. Be sure to treat the staffer with respect, since they can become a friend you can rely on in the future.
Do your research
Be prepared to talk about the issues important to you and the wine industry. You are there to represent your winery, but also to represent the wine industry as a whole. Make sure you know where your Member of Congress/Senator stands on a particular issue, what legislation they have sponsored, and how they have voted. Reach out to WineAmerica and your local industry association. Find out what others in the wine industry are saying about an issue and why.
Don’t be late
Be on time for your meeting or get there early. A Congressional office usually works on a tight schedule and takes many meetings each day.
Go into the meeting with a “game plan.” If you are in a group, have a “leader” who will lead the discussion. Only discuss one topic at a time and be prepared to answer questions. You might want to have a “fact-sheet” to leave behind with the office. This might include facts such as the economic impact of the wine industry in your region, sustainability, or growth. Reach out to WineAmerica and/or your local association to learn what information might be useful when discussing a particular issue.
Be courteous and polite
Let the Member or Staffer answer your questions and listen to what they have to say. Do not interrupt them. Do not react angrily when they give you an answer you may not like or that you do not agree with. Let the facts you present stand for themselves. Offer yourself as a resource if they have any further questions. Leave on a positive note. There are always new issues around the corner. Maintaining positive personal relationships with Members of Congress and their Staff is the best way to protect your business and the wine industry.
Make a specific request
Ask the Member/Senator to do something specific (vote a certain way, sponsor legislation) that benefits the issue or issues you are there to discuss. Quite often they want to help their constituents, particularly if it is a relatively non-partisan issue such as wine.
Make sure to have some information about your particular issue (and possibly your business) to leave behind with the Congressional staff and leave your contact information. Make sure to follow up the meeting with a phone call and an email. Make sure to thank the staff when you leave. It will take more than one meeting for you to really effect change, but a face to face meeting is still the best way to make your views heard. Remember, the Member/Senator works for you.