Law & Principles, Culture & the Family
How to be an effective advocate at the state Capitol
April 10, 2023
Rick Farmer, Ph.D.
When you are passionate about an issue, you want policymakers to hear your voice. But the folks inside the state Capitol can seem isolated, even insulated from the people they are supposed to serve. How can you cut through the crowd and effectively communicate your concerns to your legislators?
Rule #1: Communicate
Whether your passion is taxes or judicial reform or parental rights or school choice or any of a host of other issues, keep in mind that the most important step in contacting your legislators is to just do it. Writing the perfect letter or using the perfect catchphrase is not important. Communicating in any respectful manner available to you is what is important. Your communication will improve with each experience. Don’t let a desire to be perfect prevent you from doing good. Just communicate—any way, any time that works for you.
Ways to Be More Effective
There are some steps you can take to communicate more effectively. Here are some techniques that will help you become more than just a tally mark on an executive assistant’s call sheet in a state lawmaker’s office.
Specific Policy Proposal
If you are advocating for a specific policy position during the legislative session, the proposal most likely has a bill number associated with it. It will be helpful if you refer to the bill number. Of course, you may be talking to a legislator during the interim (between legislative sessions) and there may not be a bill number. Or, during the session some ideas get introduced toward the end. So, you may not be able to reference the bill number. If you don’t have the number, don’t worry about it: see Rule #1.
Bill numbers can be a little difficult to find. News outlets often do not include bill numbers in their coverage. For example, they may say a bill is being considered to limit gun ownership, but they don’t mention the number. Stories posted by OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism almost always include bill numbers. Reading OCPA’s reporting of events at the state Capitol is one way to find bill numbers.
The Oklahoma Legislature has an extensive website that allows you to search for legislation by subject. Some other options include the ability to search by bill author or committee assignment. So, if you know a little bit of information about the bill you can likely find the number.
Some committees have narrow jurisdictions and don’t have many bills assigned to them. For example, if the bill is about veterans you might be able to quickly look through all of the bills assigned to the Veterans Committee. However, if the bill is about education funding, it might be hard to sort through all of the bills in the Appropriations Committee.
If there is a bill number, use it. If there is not, be specific about the policy idea that concerns you.
If you are interested in a specific bill during the legislative session, the timing of your contact could be important. The Oklahoma legislative process includes a series of deadlines. There are deadlines for introducing bills, hearing bills in committee, hearing bills on the floor, hearing bills in the other chamber, etc. Bills that do not advance before a deadline are dead for the year. So, if you want to discuss a specific bill it is important to know where the bill is in the process. OCPA’s Citizen’s Guide to the Oklahoma Legislature describes the deadlines and tells you how to know where the bill stands.
The status of the bill will tell you whom to contact and what to ask them to do. For example, if the bill is in the committee you might focus on committee members and ask them to vote the bill out of committee before the deadline. Of course if the bill has missed a deadline and it is dead for the year, then your message may become about the need for the policy rather than about passing a specific bill. Regardless of the bill’s status, remember Rule #1.
Whom to Contact
Contacting the right legislator at the right time can greatly improve your effectiveness. For example, approaching the right legislative gatekeeper just before a legislative deadline could be very important.
Your first contact should be with your own legislators, even if you know they don’t agree with you on the topic. The legislators for your district feel some obligation to meet with you, so they will be the easiest for you to reach on the phone or with an appointment. Generally speaking they are very courteous, so long as you are respectful. And, when you contact other legislators they are likely to ask you whether or not you have spoken to your own members. Starting with your legislators allows you to answer yes.
Another legislator worth contacting is the bill’s author. If you support the bill, let the author know you are supporting their legislation. The author can help you better understand the provisions of the bill and thus communicate more effectively with other members of the legislature. If you have suggestions about ways to improve the bill, the author is the person best suited to make the changes.
Among the most important gatekeepers in the Capitol are the committee chairmen. If a bill fails to pass out of committee by the deadline, it is dead for the year. The chairman has the power to determine which bills get a hearing and which bills die at the committee deadline without a hearing. About 50 percent of the bills introduced by legislators each year die at the first committee deadline without a hearing. About half of the ones that do get heard in committee become law (see page 113 here). So, urging a committee chairman to hear a bill or to not hear a bill can determine its fate.
Committee chairmen hear bills that meet two criteria. First, they support the bill and want it to move forward. Second, they have the votes to pass it in committee. Very few bills actually receive a failing vote. Not always, but usually, the chairman will not schedule a bill to be heard unless it is likely to pass.
This brings us to the next group of legislators that you might want to contact, the committee members. If the chairman schedules it for a vote, you will need a majority of the committee’s support. Having their support may determine whether or not the chairman schedules it for a hearing.
Once the bill passes committee a similar dynamic occurs between the floor leader and the members. The floor leader determines if and when a bill gets heard by the full chamber. Urging the floor leader to schedule (or not schedule) a bill for a vote can make a difference.
Once the bill is scheduled, all of the members of the chamber will vote on it. At that point, it makes sense to reach out to any and all members. You might start with members of the majority party. Majority party support can be critical, but all members will have a vote on the floor.
The Speaker of the House and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate are also important gatekeepers. In fact, they appoint the other gatekeepers. However, they are generally focused on the budget and major legislation. They don’t usually exercise their considerable leverage over run-of-the-mill legislation. So, expressing your concerns to their offices can help bring an issue to their attention. And, for major legislation it can be impactful.
Once a bill passes through one chamber it moves to the other chamber and starts the process over. The committee chairman, the committee members, the author, the floor leader, the members, and the leader of the second chamber all have essential roles.
Amendments to the bill in the second chamber really complicate the process. They are likely to go to a conference committee with a whole new set of members, deadlines, and chairmen. Some details about that process can be found in this article published by the Oklahoma Political Science Association. At that point, your communication should focus on the author, chairman, and members of the committee. If the bill passes out of committee, it will return to both chambers for a vote. Then the floor leader and all the members will come back into play.
Knowing the bill number and status of a bill will tell you where to focus your communication. However, always remember Rule # 1.
You may be thinking, should I send an email? Should I leave a voicemail? Can I just drop by the Capitol? The simple answer is nothing beats a face-to-face meeting. And, yes you can stop by their offices in the Capitol.
Oklahoma has a part-time legislature and members are not always in their offices. From early February until the end of May, during the legislative session, they are generally in the Capitol from Monday afternoon until Thursday morning. Much of that time they are in committee meetings or floor sessions. They do have an assistant in their office who will take a message or help you set an appointment.
If you are in your legislator’s office, you will get some priority. Legislators make a point of seeing their own constituents. Their assistant can help you connect with them. Let the assistant know that you live in the district.
It is best to make an appointment. But, sometimes you can catch them in the halls between meetings. And if you sit in their office and wait, you can see almost anyone in the Capitol. Although in some cases it might be a long wait. Consider making an appointment.
Writing a personal letter is also an effective technique. Not many people take the time to write a real letter, so letters make you stand out in the crowd. Usually, a legislator will reply with a letter. It is a great way to bring attention to an issue.
A phone call is another effective method. Many legislators make an attempt to return every phone call by the end of the day, especially calls to constituents. Don’t be surprised if the return call is late in the evening.
Email is also effective. Some legislators receive their legislative email directly on their phone. Others ask their assistant to screen it. Usually a personalized email will receive a response, especially if it’s from a constituent.
On those rare occasions when Oklahoma legislators are receiving hundreds of calls and emails per day about a specific issue, the call or email is likely to be recorded as a tally mark on a contact sheet. There are more effective ways to communicate, but even tally marks are important. They let a legislator know that you are concerned about a specific issue at a crucial time in the legislative process. Most importantly, remember Rule # 1.
What to Say
Always, always be respectful. When passionate about an issue it is easy to become animated, especially if the other person does not agree with us. Keep in mind that while you may be especially passionate about a specific issue today, there are thousands of issues at the Capitol each year. You may wish to come back another day and speak to the legislator about another topic. Don’t burn bridges. Communicate your passion, but do it in a respectful way.
It will help your case if you focus on one issue per meeting. Sometimes we see issues as intertwined and we want to express concern about a whole range of things. It is best to stay focused on the issue at hand. Raising multiple topics risks confusing the issue and even damaging your credibility.
When possible, limit your conversation, letter, or email to one specific bill or policy. Clearly state the reasons you support or oppose the policy. When appropriate, tell a personal story about how the policy affects you or your family. Most importantly, remember Rule #1.
If you visit their Capitol office or meet with them personally in the district, take a one-page handout. It will serve as a reminder of your visit. It will outline the key points you made. And, it can help you stay focused on your message. Large documents will probably be ignored and tossed pretty quickly. A one-page handout is more likely to be read and possibly retained. It could include Internet links to other resources on the topic.
Sometimes groups like OCPA will ask you to contact your legislators and they will provide a phone script for you to read or draft email for you to send. These are valuable communications.
Keep in mind that democracy is about building a majority coalition. There is power in numbers. Your single letter to your legislator can get their attention, elicit a response, and be effective. But when hundreds of people are communicating similar messages, legislators know their voters are paying attention. Participating in groups is a great way to let them know that their reelection depends upon the decision they are about to make.
Whenever possible, respond using the group's draft. Then follow up with your own more personalized communication. Make an appointment. Call their office. Send a letter. Take the action that best fits your time and resources.
Rule #2: See Rule #1
Though the above techniques are effective with most policymakers, don’t let a desire to be perfect prevent you from doing good. Just communicate. Some policymakers are more difficult to reach than others. Most make a good-faith effort to respond to letters and phone calls. The most effective contacts require the most work on your part. Fewer people use these techniques precisely because they require the most work. That is why you will stand out when you use them. Putting in the work will make you more than just a tally mark.