Mindset: Petitioning is like Farming.
I grew up on a farm in Mississippi and one of my favorite things to eat was strawberries. I ate them whole, cold, fresh, in preserves, and canned (in jars). There was one problem with strawberries in the south: they only grew in the summer. Everyone in my family explained this to me, and I even had a couple of standoffs with the manager (my friend’s dad) at the Piggly Wiggly when they didn’t have strawberries. I was well aware of how growing seasons worked, but I was stubborn and wanted strawberries year-round.
So, I did what any know-it-all eight-year-old would do—I de- cided to grow my own strawberries. Then I could eat fresh strawber- ries whenever I wanted! It was the perfect plan. I tried growing them in containers on kitchen window sills and by our hot-water heater. Because summers in Mississippi feel like showers in terms of heat and humidity, I tried growing strawberries in our bathroom. I tried to grow strawberries everywhere. Naturally, all of my plans were epic fails. For those two years, my family, especially our resident farmer— Uncle Bubba—just watched and waited for me to learn what they al- ready knew: You have to do what you can when you can, but it takes time, patience, and rationale to see your efforts grow.
What do strawberries have to do with advocating on Capitol Hill? You have to be patient and realistic, listen to folks who have toiled before you, and work within the process to produce the results you want. This may not be what you want to hear. But, like strawberries, everything has a natural rhythm and season. Things may not happen when you want them to. Politics are no different.
When it comes to government and politics, all of us want some- thing done. And we all want it done yesterday. But you’re here for a reason, and you’re trying to figure out your season. It could be that you are frustrated with what you see happening or not happening in Congress. Maybe you’ve always focused your efforts on the Executive Branch and found that those efforts could be severely hampered by whoever was in the White House. You could be concerned about the direction of your community. On the positive side, your government may have gotten something right, and you don’t want it stripped away or repealed.
Whatever strategy you’ve been using, I’m sure you recognize that where government is involved, the situation will not change over- night; you understand you’ve got to wait on your strawberries to grow.
Petitioning the government also has seasons. There will be sum- mers for your issue when everyone is interested, everyone will look to you as an expert, and you’re going to see movement. But there will also be winters for your issue, when you may feel invisible, or that people aren’t concerned with the issues like they should be. But win- ter doesn’t mean that there isn’t anything happening. There are sim- ply different tools that you should be using in the winter to grow your strawberries than you used in the summer to pick your strawberries.
A season change doesn’t mean that you should give up. You need winter political advocacy tools and summer political advocacy tools. There are things that you can do in the “growing season” and outside it to advance your issue.
This book describes the process of petitioning. It gives you clarifi- cation and inside information on how Capitol Hill really works.
This book will not teach you to hunt. You cannot just read the book and get a bill passed next Monday. If that’s your goal, this is not the book for you. But if you’re willing to change your approach, then this book will be a valuable resource.
Political advocacy is a long-term process, like farming. You have to plant seeds and tend the field. Later, possibly a long time after plant- ing, you’ll reap the benefits. This book will teach you how to farm on Capitol Hill.
You’re Right to Petition
Petitioning is nothing more than participating in our democracy. It’s a necessity. The voice of the people shows the government what needs to be done. You owe it to yourself, to your family, and to your community to get involved. Petitioning is your First Amendment right. If you’re not currently participating in our democracy, you should be. Imagine this: What if we lived in a world where political advocates didn’t exist? What if there were no advocates to make an ask? What if there was no accountability for our government? What would happen? If this scenario does not end in complete chaos, you’re not imagining it correctly.
Ultimately, our government represents us and our needs. Still, some people choose not to participate. Some people say they don’t re- ally like politics, that politics are too polarizing, or that they just don’t “do politics.” I always tell them, “If you choose not to participate, you only make it easier for people to make decisions for you.” You can’t af- ford not to participate.
Civic participation in democracy is more than voting. Voting is merely the first step. The next step is following up, which involves keeping your Members of Congress accountable, reminding them of what you need, and getting answers from them about how they are serving you and your communities.
In this book, I’m going to discuss petitioning, and I’ll use the term interchangeably with advocating or advocacy. But I don’t want you to get hung up on the words. It’s all about communicating with Congress, no matter what you call it.
The good news is, nothing in this book requires any new or special skills. What you need is something that you already have: the ability to connect with other people. The ability to tell your story and express what’s important to you and why. No one can tell your story like you can. Members of Congress and their staffers, like me, want to hear from you and to help you.
But Nobody Has Taught Us How to Petition
In the past, you may have run into some barriers to petitioning the government. The first one is that no one has taught you how to peti- tion. You don’t quite know how to make the change you want. People tell me all the time, “I must’ve missed this class,” or maybe, “I slept through this class.” The truth is, no one taught us how to advocate in school.
People who don’t know how to petition usually say one of three things: they don’t know where to start, they don’t know how to interact with government officials to make change in Congress, or they don’t know how to make their voices heard as one of many.
Let’s address the first problem: not knowing where to start. I’m go- ing to give you information on starting with a new member of Con- gress and with one who has been in for 26 years, whether it’s your first day as an advocate, or your 500th day, or your 50th year.
Start at home and figure out what’s most important to you. Then this book will show you how to build from there. I won’t push you to go from zero to ten overnight. If you are at zero, this book will get you to a solid one or two. Then, in a year, you’ll look back and realize that you’ve been using several of these tips and tools, and you’ll find your- self at a nine or ten, and you’ll keep on building. This book is a build- ing block, and it should be used as such.
The second obstacle I will address is not knowing how to interact with members of Congress and staffers in order to make changes. This book goes way beyond your high school civics or college political sci- ence classes. It’s not only the accumulation of my ten years working on Capitol Hill, but also the decades and centuries of service that other staffers have shared with me.
The third obstacle is not knowing how to make yourself heard when you feel your voice is one among many. The truth is, you are one voice among many. But I’ll show you how to distinguish yourself, and what not to do when you come to Capitol Hill. The foundation of petitioning is based on developing relationships, and I’m going to give you some tips on how to do it.
Other people tell me that petitioning has a steep learning curve, that the Hill is overwhelming, and that we use too much jargon and confusing lingo. Yes, like any other profession, we have unique pro- cesses and jargon that may be unfamiliar to you. The truth is, though, that some people may be using overly technical terms on purpose to confuse you and restrict your participation. I hate when people put up those barriers. I will talk to you in plain language, using everyday terms and stories, because I want you to master this information and be able to put it into action.
I know that Capitol Hill is intimidating. I’ve seen some of the biggest celebrities, the top athletes, the richest CEOs end up a nervous wreck, with voices quivering throughout our meetings. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Once you accept that everyone has to go through Capitol Hill, and every important issue comes this way, advocacy gets easier.
Yes, there are very smart, very rich people advocating next to you on the Hill. But they’re not your competition. The worst-kept secret in D.C. is that the most important people are the constituents — that is, the people who vote members of Congress into and out of office. Those people are you.
If you’re feeling intimidated, try going in with a David-and-Goliath, Grasshopper-and-Ant, or Tortoise-and-Hare attitude. Know that there will be lots of flashy, important-seeming or self-important people around you, but they aren’t always the most impactful. You can be Jane Doe from nowhere and still make an impact, no matter your background.
The Hill is cut out for tortoises. Hares do not stay in Congress very long because hares make impulsive decisions, hares take impulsive votes, and hares don’t think about real action.
Hares do not make good staffers either. Staffers must be analytical and deliberate with their work and their recommendations to mem- bers of Congress. Moreover, staffers don’t like hares coming into our offices because they rush us, and they don’t allow us to be deliberate and thoughtful.
Both staffers and members of Congress must work steadily, like tortoises. That’s how members of Congress get elected and that’s how staffers get and keep their jobs. We all work for Congress, and we are all farming.
Aside from the intimidation factor, many people feel they need special skills to get involved. I’m an attorney, but I always remind people that coming to Capitol Hill is not like going into a courtroom where you need a special degree or must be an experienced attorney. It’s also not like going into an operating room where you need to be a licensed doctor.
Instead, when you come to Capitol Hill, remember that you’re talking to your neighbor. These are the people who live where you live, have worked where you work, and are doing their best to repre- sent you. They didn’t need to be special to run for office, and you don’t need special skills to talk to them.
That said, there are some things you can do to be a more effective communicator, and I’ll teach you many of those things. But there are no prerequisites for your learning. You can be effective using the skills you already have. You might be thinking, “Sure, she thinks I have the skills, but I don’t.” Okay, if you don’t have any of the skills in this book, just say, “Hi.”
You can use this book to learn the purpose of these tools and then form your own ideas for the legislative process, based on what you are capable of and what you think will work for you. I only ask that, if you create a new political advocacy tool and come to the Hill to use it with members of Congress and staff, you email me about your new tool. I’m always looking to learn!
Seeds Don’t Sprout Overnight
I see people coming to the Hill and shooting themselves and their is- sue in the foot all the time. I can’t say it enough: just as farming takes seasons, political advocacy takes time. People come in frustrated with Congress because they are deadlocked on issues that are important to them. Some of them feel that Congress just doesn’t care.
When you come to the Hill with that negative thought process and negative energy, you bring it into your meetings. You can’t hide it, and we can see it. That attitude makes it hard for us to work with you and make the most of our limited time together. You should know that we do care. Often, we just need to be properly informed, but we have lim- ited time and a lot of issues to address.
Also, petitioners are often unrealistic about the results that they can achieve. I’ve had people come in who think that we can get an entire bill drafted, introduced through the committee process, ap- proved through the chambers, and bring it into public law in a matter of months. They think that a person can come to the Hill for one visit and be done. That’s not true. You must keep in mind that the issues that matter to you have a massive impact on communities, on the fu- ture of our country, and on the livelihood of our planet. They all re- quire thoughtful debate and policy considerations.
There is no magic trick to solving huge social and political issues. They’re too complex. They impact people all over the world. Public policy problem-solving takes a lot of work and a lot of time.
In addition to not being realistic about the results, sometimes peo- ple are not specific enough in what they ask. I’ll give you more than 40 tools so that you can ensure that once you have a realistic expectation, you also have a realistic ask. See Part II for the series of political advo- cacy asks or tools.
One challenge is that, as a petitioner, you don’t have much time on Capitol Hill. But petitioning is a long game, so you need to make the most of the time that you have in the places where you are. There are efficient uses of your time, and then there are things that may seem like they’re helping but just slow you down or kill time. I will show you where to focus, how to focus, and how to increase your yield.
How to Increase Your Yield
The key to creating change in government is to build momentum. It’s very rare for a bill to become an instant bill or an instant law. We have seen almost instant laws after terrible events like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, Watergate, the 2008 recession, and the subsequent auto bail- out. So if you hear that something became law overnight, it’s not true. There are no overnight celebrities, and there are no overnight laws. To build momentum, you need to move forward in steps. In farming, you plant seeds, you tend the field, you harvest the crops, and you do it again next year. The cycle continues.
Petitioning is similar in that someone needs to start the chain, and someone needs to continue what has gone before. Someone has to reach out to Congress to plant the seeds, which means educating the members. You tend the field by building relationships with members of Congress. You harvest the crops by gaining publicity and getting a movement behind your issue. And then, you need to do it again and again, year after year.
You are a part of the process. You are just as much a farmer in the political process as a member of Congress or a staffer. Success comes from forging personal relationships with an office and then making a reasonable and relevant request. I’ll show you exactly what you need to understand so that you can help others while you petition.