How Health Officials Can Build Relationships with Members of Congress

September 06, 2022 | Carolyn McCoy

HPU-Capitol.jpgWith the midterm elections quickly approaching, it is always a good idea to think through how to build a relationship with new members of Congress. January 2023 marks the beginning of a new Congressional term, which is just around the corner. Since many health departments receive more than half of their funding from the federal government, Congress's decisions are critical to ensure support for public health programs. In a world where COVID and other infectious disease outbreaks thrust public health officials to the forefront, it is even more essential to provide sound data and information to members of Congress on many health issues that public health professionals address.

This guide is designed for state and territorial health officials to start a lasting relationship that begins with getting a foot in the door (or Zoom room).

Step 1: Ask permission?

Before reaching out to a member of Congress, state health department staff should know the rules of engagement and check with the governor's office to ensure a synergistic state approach. Education about what state public health does, who it helps, and how federal funding can be used is related to but distinct from lobbying. According to the IRS, direct lobbying refers to "communications with members or employees of a legislative body, or with any other government official or employee who may participate in formulating the legislation, if the principal purpose of the communication is to influence legislation." Lobbying can include written or oral communication for or against specific legislation.

Many state personnel are prohibited from lobbying activities as part of their official duties. This state-by state chart created by the National Council of State Legislatures is a helpful tool to determine what is allowable. Moreover, some organizations define the pillars of policy communication as:

  • Education: Providing information, education, research, and analysis. Does not include value judgments or legislative action.
    • Example: "In our state, the opioid epidemic is causing thousands of deaths per week."
  • Advocacy: Communicating with policymakers and the public about the value of specific issues or policies without taking a position.
    • Example: "State health departments are helping address the opioid epidemic through numerous interventions." (Cite examples).
  • Lobbying: Conducting activities in support of or opposition to legislation or regulations.
    • Example: “We are asking you to support this bill to increase public health programs' funding.

Step 2: Who you gonna call?

This fall, campaign season will be full steam ahead. Members of Congress plan to spend as much time as possible away from Washington, D.C., and make their case for re-election. Being close to home and excited to connect with their community opens the door for connection. This could be the perfect time to invite a member of Congress to tour a state public health laboratory or meet with the emergency operations team. Getting the contact information for your Member of Congress is easy. Here is a handy directory with contact information, including their district offices. Before picking up the phone, be sure to know when Congress is in session

Step 3: Make the call!

Call the district office closest to the state health department and ask the receptionist to provide the name and email address of the scheduler who handles the Representative's or Senator's district schedule. Also, inform the staff that you are a constituent.

Step 4: Put it in writing.

With the scheduler's contact information, it is time to connect. Provide several options to meet, double checking that it is a district work period and Congress is out of session.

Step 5: Frantically refresh your inbox. Just kidding. Don't.

Remember that many constituents and priorities are pulling on a member's time, so don't expect an instant response. However, if you have not heard back from the office in a week or two, call or email the scheduler to confirm that they received the request. Also, meeting with an official staff member is excellent, too, if the Member of Congress isn’t available. Staff are the eyes, ears, and experts.

Step 6: Preparation + Opportunity = Success!

Once the meeting is confirmed, be sure to prepare. Do some background research on their priorities and think about how the public health department is strengthening the community's health, which drives their issues. Do not hesitate to contact the ASTHO federal government affairs team to help develop talking points and background information in addition to updates on what is happening in Washington, D.C., before the meeting.

Clearly identify your "ask" or meeting purpose and follow up on it in the future. Members of Congress appreciate stories and data on state-specific impacts of federal actions and federal funding. Consider any resources to share.

Also, be sure to understand the funding and policy challenges and issues at the federal level. If a legislator comes to the health department or an event, ensure that staff experts are on hand to field questions.

If your meeting is virtual work with Congressional staff to determine the best platform for the meeting. Some offices prefer Zoom whereas others may prefer teams. On the day of the meeting, test the computer setup and ensure there is a quiet location with a strong internet connection. Also, since technology sometimes glitches at the worst possible moments, be patient if there are any delays in connections on the other side.

Your expertise is valuable, and elected officials look to you for guidance on complex policy issues!

Step 7: Ready. Set. Meet!

The meeting may not be in an office, but rather, a "walk and talk" or in a front office. Meet the member where they are, literally. While pleasantries and personal connections are essential, make sure to share your main messages early since many meetings may not get the full scheduled time.

Share gratitude. Members of Congress and their staff are pulled in many different directions. They have also provided generous funding for public health priorities during the early years of the pandemic—don't forget to thank them for their hard work under challenging circumstances.

Step 8: Say thank you. (Public health is good at this.)

After the meeting, another opportunity to stay connected is to write a thank you note. Consider including follow-up materials and contact information again. Also, if possible, offering thanks on social media and tagging them allows their office to share broadly and lift up your cause.

Step 9: Don't leave them hanging.

Don't be shy in reaching out and sharing exciting news or developments. Keep the relationship "warm" by initiating quarterly touchpoints via email or phone. This is another way to position your health department as a resource and offer input on policy decisions. It is especially gratifying for a member of Congress to see how their hard work in Washington, D.C., directly impacts their community.

Step 10: Share with ASTHO.

ASTHO wants to hear how your meeting went! Any tips or insights that we can reinforce in Washington, D.C., are always helpful.