You are a veteran member of an organization within the Executive Branch. You have risen up through the ranks and now rather than executing your organization’s activities your focus is policy, planning, programming, budget, execution, oversight, and authorities. You are in a new world. You will likely receive little or no preparatory training and the success of your program depends upon Congressional action.
The below list of recommendations is based upon personal experience. My recommendation language is purposely blunt as I have seen what happens when relationships with Congress sour. I hope my recommendations can inform others within the Executive Branch prior to their engagements with Congress.
– Without authority and funding your program will fail. If you want authority and funding you must convince Members and Staffers of your program’s value and the ramifications of it not being funded.
– Members of Congress and their Staffers have biases, just like you do.
– Some Members and Staffers may feel as though the Executive Branch has lied, purposely omitted details, or obfuscated. This may affect their demeanor during engagements.
– Members and Staffers are constantly communicating with people like you who want money and authority. They may not share your passion for your program.
– There is no end to Congressional engagement. As Members and Staffers come and go you will brief, re-brief, and start over often.
– Check your ego. Assume nothing. You may have read a biography or two, but you likely don’t know where the Member or Staffer is coming from until you engage with them.
– Engage early. Engage often. Engage at multiple levels. When in doubt, engage. I have never had an engagement at Capitol Hill where someone said “Gee, I wish you would have come to us later.”
– Speak with one voice. There should be a single organization, or even better a single person, that speaks to Congress about your program.
– Speak with a consistent voice. If you begin interactions with Congress with one plan, and it changes, notify the Members and Staffers and justify the change.
– Document all interactions with Congress noting date, time, location, who was present, what was discussed, and resulting tasks.
– Actively listen to what the Members and Staffers are saying. Do not let your internal monologue or your need to jump into the conversation drown out their message.
– Answer the question asked. This seems obvious, but it cannot be overstated in its importance.
– Admit when you do not know something. Offer to find out and return with the answer or to make an introduction to the person who does know.
– Present your program and its requirements in an objective, dispassionate, professional manner free from the use of organizational terminology or jargon.
– Own the content of what you present to Congress. Your organization’s legislative affairs personnel own the process. They will get you to Capitol Hill and in the room with the right people. You, as the person representing your program, own the content.
– Rehearse! Rehearse! Rehearse! This includes role-playing within your organization. During rehearsals, read your prepared statements out loud – you will be surprised how many errors you find by doing this.
– Surprise Congress.
– Use an authority or appropriation in a way that is inconsistent with its primary purpose or make a specious argument in an attempt to justify the same.
– Lose your professionalism or objectivity.
– Answer the question not asked.
– What the Members, Staffers, and Committees value.