CISPES Guide To Grassroots Congressional Pressure


CISPES Guide To Grassroots Congressional Pressure

UpdatedFebruary 2007

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1.Differing Levels and Forms of Congressional Pressure

Congressionalpressure plays a critical role in whether or not we defeat policies like CAFTAand the ILEA, not to mention other laws that affect LatinAmerica. After all, Congress is the body legally charged withapproving trade deals. According to the Constitution, our Congressionalrepresentatives in the House and the Senate exist to represent the views andbest interests of their constituents (those who live in their district orstate). Unfortunately, our representatives are often more greatly influenced bylarge corporations and monied interest groups than they are by theirconstituents or they are simply uninformed or uninterested. Sometimes, all thatis needed to convince a Representative to take a stand is to ask (or subtlydemand) that s/he do so; at other times we must force him/her to do so throughgrassroots political pressure. Even if your representative has regularly votedagainst free trade agreements — or sided with us on other issues — it is stillvital to maintain political pressure. Congressional representatives can changetheir minds between the time of your meeting and the day of the vote. Witnessthe CAFTA vote in 2005 the Republicans did not have enough votes to pushthrough CAFTA until they twisted enough arms and "convinced" enoughlegislators to change their vote. By maintaining adequate political pressure wesend our representatives a clear message: your constituents do not want freetrade and militarization and there is no room for a change of heart.

Thereare many different ways, with varying levels of militancy, to express to our Representativesour opposition to policies like CAFTA, the ILEA, and other forms of US interventionand to pressure them to vote the right way! Among the most widely used tacticsare:

  • Writingletters/emails/postcards
  • Phone calls
  • Congressional visits
  • Hounding/Bird-dogging
  • Protests and demonstrations
  • Office sit-ins

Allof these tactics can be carried out in a diverse number of ways, all withvarying levels of confrontation. Which tactics you use to carry out yourstrategy will depend on the conditions particular to your locale.

Thekeys to a successful congressional pressure campaign are:

  1. Building mobilizing capacity
  2. Escalation of pressure
  3. Diversity of tactics

Becausethe policies we seek to change are integral to the US neoliberal model, many Representativeswill vote against these measures only when forced. Representatives must believethat if they do not do so their constituency will not vote for them in thefuture. This means that we must mobilize as many people as possible to pressureCongress, under the threat that if our representatives do not heed the callthey will lose their jobs. To this end, we must ensure that even whileescalating our actions that we continue to reach out to and recruit newactivists. Optimally, the actions we carry out should have the objective notsimply to mobilize but to educate and reach out to the public.

Theneed to build mobilizing capacity is one of the big reasons to increaseescalation over time instead of starting off with the highest level ofmilitancy. If we started a pressure campaign using the highest level ofmilitancy, such as an office take over, we would be hard pressed to find ameans to increase our militancy in the future while expanding our base.

However,simply because we do not want to start with the highest level of militancy whenlaunching a campaign does not mean that escalation of pressure must be a longand drawn out process. Depending on the local conditions, it is very possibleto climb the pressure ladder quickly. It is also possible and suggested thatcampaigns employ more than one type of tactic in the same conjuncture.Escalation of pressure does not have to mean that a campaign starts off withletter writing and THEN move on to phone calls and only THEN move on tocongressional visits, etc. Rather, campaigns can easily start with letterwriting and phone calls and combine with congressional visits, etc.

2.Congressional Visit How-To

A.Advanced Preparation

Do YourResearch:

  • Research in theCongressional Directory (,, Just punch in your zipcode, and the site provides you with contact information and a web pagefor your Member of Congress. You will be able to find biographicalinformation, committee and subcommittee assignments, and key issues ofconcern for your Representative.
  • Certain policy groups havegood information on trade: (,military aid and policing (,or more general legislative issues (
  • Review your legislator'svoting record and any publicly stated views or opinions.
  • Learn who does staff work onthe issues that concern you most. These are the people who answer yourletters and brief/advise their boss on pending issues. These people are avery important resource but are often overlooked.

Compileimportant facts and figures.

  • All legislators supposedlywant to improve the economy and quality of life in their district/stateand have a positive international impact. Search for information on the impact of free trade agreements,military bases and the SOA, or whatever you're are lobbying about.

Make sureeveryone in your group is prepared.

  • Brief everyone attending themeeting and provide them with written materials.
  • Be organized. If you arepart of a group, it is a good idea to organize a preparatory meetingbeforehand. Decide who will discuss what and in what order participantswill speak.
  • Be certain everyone agreeson the central message and what will be asked of the legislator. This wayyou will avoid a possible internal debate in front of your legislator.
  • Know the counter-arguments.Be ready to respectfully answer any questions or disagreements. However,we must keep in mind the purpose of the visit, to express our oppositionto the policy in question, not to have a debate. Be careful not to get socaught up in the details that the overall message gets lost.
  • Prepare an informationpacket to leave with your legislator. This should include information onthe topic and on CISPES (i.e.: brochures, outreach materials, politicalpressure materials, info sheets, etc.)

B.Getting the Meeting
You can meet with your Legislators either in their local office or in their Washington DCoffice.

1.Contacting your legislator:

  • Send a fax to yourRepresentative requesting a meeting
  • Call to follow up on you faxand ask for a specific time. Whenyou call your legislator's office ask to speak with the person who handlesthe legislator's schedule.
  • Keep in mind that eachcongressional office schedules appointments differently, but thelegislator's scheduler or appointment secretary usually arrangesappointments.

2.Making the Appointment:

  • When speaking to thescheduler, introduce yourself and explain that you are a constituent.
  • Tell the scheduler the dateand time you would like to meet with your legislator (be flexible) and thegeneral topics you wish to discuss.
  • Let the scheduler know thatthe meeting should take no longer than one hour.
  • If there is more than oneperson attending the meeting, let the scheduler know their names andaffiliations.
  • If someone in your groupknows the legislator personally or professionally, make sure that thescheduler is aware of the relationship.
  • Getting a meeting cansometimes be a long and arduous process with staffers giving you therun-around. Be persistent yet polite, and make it clear that YOU, themember's constituent, are the most important person s/he will ever listento. Don't give up even if you are told the member has no time to meet withyour delegation and even if they don't return your phone calls-it does payoff in the long run and in most cases you will eventually be able to sitdown with your representative.
  • Emphasize why the issues youare presenting are important to you as constituents and why they should beimportant to your Congressperson.
  • If your Member can't meetwith you, visit the staff member who works on the issues that most concernyou. For most issues relating to El Salvador and trade policy,you will want to meet with the foreign policy and trade staffers. Usuallythat person will be based in WashingtonDC, but there will also bean aide in the local office who can meet with you. Try to meet with thehighest ranking aide possible in the local office, i.e. the LegislativeDirector.
  • After you schedule ameeting, send a confirmation letter that includes a list of those who willattend the meeting.

(a) Visits at the Local Office

    • Seekappointments during congressional recess periods (around every holiday)when your Representative returns to your district.
    • thetelephone number and address of your legislator's district office can befound on their webpage, which you can find at or

(b)Visits in WashingtonDC

    • You canoften make plans to visit the Washingtonoffice through the local office. Otherwise, contact the Washington office and find out who thescheduler is. Ask the scheduler to arrange the meeting.
    • Rememberthat most legislative business occurs Tuesday through Thursday and thatthe closing days of a session are extra busy.
    • When youarrive in Washington,call the Representative's office to confirm your appointment.

C.Meeting with Your Representative

  1. Be on time!
  2. Introduce yourself and saywhat issues and legislation you want to discuss.
  3. Always begin your meeting bythanking your legislator for taking the time to visit with you. If yourlegislator has been supportive of our stance around trade and social andeconomic justice, you should thank him/her for his/her support as well.
  4. Explain to your legislatorwho you represent and why you asked for the meeting. If you are in agroup, you should individually introduce yourself and briefly describeyour organization.
  5. Have different people coverdifferent issues so that the Member can see the breadth of the coalition,but make sure that all introductions are kept brief allowing more time forconversation w/ the Representative.
  6. Ask his or her position. Howwill s/he vote?
  7. Remember that you might be talkingto someone who has yet to hear of the issue. Be prepared to explain alittle something to them and ask if he or she would like more information.
  8. Do party leaders havepositions on the issue? What is their influence likely to be?
  9. Listen well -- you will hearoccasional indications of your Representative's actual views, and youshould take those opportunities to provide good information.
  10. Be prepared but do not feelthat you need to be an expert. Most members of Congress are generalists.Be open to counter-arguments, but don't get stuck on them. If you don'tknow the answer to a question, say so. Nothing is worse than being caughtin a lie or inaccuracy. Offer to look into the question and get back tothe Member (this is also an excellent opportunity to stay in touch).
  11. Is the office hearing fromopponents? If so, what are their arguments and what groups are involved?
  12. Does the Representative knowany other key House Members or Senators who should be contacted to getfavorable action on the bill? Is s/he willing to facilitate contact?
  13. Follow up -- you shouldconsider sending a thank you note after the meeting, and if commitmentswere made during the meeting, repeat your understanding of them.

D.Strategy Tips

Alwaysask for specific actions; always get a specific commitment and then follow up.

Askfor Something More-- No matter how supportive or unsupportive your legislatoris, there is always a next step. If your member is generally unresponsive, askhim or her to sign a letter on human rights. If your member is veryresponsive, ask him or her to initiate a "Dear Colleague" letter, an amendmentor a freestanding bill.

ProvideAffirmation Where Possible-- Look for areas of agreement and affirmthem. Convey your appreciation for positive steps, no matter how small. Keepwritten records of meetings. Take notes for use in future contacts. Whatdid you request? What was the response? What was promised? What are the chiefareas of interest?

Formore information about other Congressional pressure strategies, contact theCISPES national office or your local committee.

Further resources to check out:

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