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Congress Coming to a District Near You! (Or how to take advantage of the Memorial Day recess)

For many of us, the word “recess” conjures up images of monkey bars, school yard fights and dodge ball.  In Washington, D.C., this term is used to describe the time period during which legislators return to their districts and states.  Sure, for some this still means school yard fights.  But for the most part the term “recess” is a misnomer.  In fact, legislators and their staff are often working harder in their communities than they might in Washington, D.C. (yes, I know.  Not hard to imagine).

Why is this important now?  The week of May 27th marks the Memorial Day “constituent work week” or “district work period.”  We have more coming up in July and August as well. You can take steps to be sure the D.C.-types are working hard (instead of hardly working) through one or more of the following four options:

Go to a town hall meeting:  Check your legislators’ Facebook pages or Twitter feed for information about in-person or tele-town halls. You might even take the old-fashioned approach and call their offices to find out where they’ll be in the districts during the next few weeks.  (Note that some offices are nervous about giving out that information, not because they don’t like you, but because they’re worried about public safety). You can find local contact information through their web pages at www.house.gov and www.senate.gov.  Not sure who represents you in the House?  Go to the House website for an address look-up tool.  As long as you know what state you live in, it should be relatively easy to find your Senators.

Ask for a meeting in your legislator’s office: Every legislator has offices in their district (House) and around the state (Senate). Use the online resources above to find local contact information for your legislators. Then pick up the phone (or a keyboard) and see if you can set up a meeting with the legislator or, better yet, a staff person. If you decide to do this, however, be sure to have a reason for the meeting. The “I’m just interested in stopping by” approach isn’t a good use of your time or theirs. Your reason doesn’t have to be fancy. Talk to them about what you do in the community, how you help people, what issues you’re interested in and why. Let them know that you’re there to help if they ever need to know more.

Let them know about your events:  Are you involved in a community spring fair?  A fundraiser for your cause? A meeting?  A conference? Even just a regular old work day? Whatever you’ve got going on in the next few weeks, if you think creatively you might find something you can invite your legislator or staff person to see or do.  Don’t reinvent the advocacy wheel.  Use your existing events to your advantage.

Utilize media effectively:  When policymakers are back home you can be sure they’re listening to the local TV and radio news shows as well as reading the smaller circulation community papers . Now’s the time to call in to drive time shows with your thoughtful (not insulting) comments on what’s happening in D.C., write letters to the editor (these generally have a short turnaround time), or find an opportunity to connect with local TV news reporters.  The more timely your story, the more likely you’ll be to capture attention, both of the community and your legislators.

The point is, you don’t have to come to Washington, D.C. to make a difference.  You have opportunities throughout the year to connect without leaving your community. If you want to be sure your elected representatives are working, not brawling, take advantage of the “recess” to deliver your message.  They need to know how policy issues impact the people they represent – and this is the time to not just tell them, but show them as well.

Stephanie Vance