Your job may depend on how actively you are involved in the next Federal-aid Highway Program reauthorization bill.
Your voice and opinions are powerful. Your member of Congress is elected to represent your concerns. It is up to you to voice concerns and to make your voice heard. If you take the time to convey your thoughts to your elected officials and follow up with them, your message on the Federal-aid Highway Reauthorization bill will have great impact.
This may be hard to believe, but you, as the local constituent, enjoy more persuasive ability to influence a member of Congress than a lobbyist based in Washington. Why? Because you have the home field advantage. You vote.
You are their boss and the elected lawmaker serves at your pleasure. It is not only your right, but your duty to make contact with your member of Congress.
Most Americans engage in the political process by voting in elections, knowing who their elected representatives are, and contacting them with questions and concerns. When the transportation bill is debated in Congress there will be scores of stakeholder groups and special interests seeking congressional support for their issue.
That is why it is critically important for you to stay informed about transportation issues before Congress. At the right time, you may be asked by NSSGA to get involved by contacting your member of Congress.
You need to have a plan in place for when that legislative alert arrives via email. Remember, your issue is only one of many, many issues – some of them contradictory – Congress will deal with when it debates the transportation bill. Congress handles a bewildering array of issues on any given day. Silence or lack of involvement by the highway construction community will only ensure that Congress will not have the benefit of the industry’s input when the next Federal-aid Highway Program bill is enacted.
Contacting your member of Congress
Staying in touch with your representative or senator is a cornerstone of active citizenship and key to securing a well-funded, long-term transportation bill. The vast majority of Americans never pass on a thought or an opinion to their elected representatives. There is always room for one more voice – your representative wants to hear from you.
Staying in touch is the only way to guarantee that your views are known and your voice heard on the next transportation bill. You can communicate with your members of Congress and congressional staff in a variety of ways. Here are some simple ways you can participate in this debate and make a difference:
- Email – Email is the fastest and most popular way to get in touch with a member of Congress. As a consequence, email messages reaching Congress have skyrocketed while the resources and staff to manage the workload have remained the same since the 1970s. Therefore, you should follow a few simple rules:
- Send a message to your House representative and U.S. senators.
- Short, informative, personalized messages have more impact.
- Use the online forms provided by your member of Congress to send a message.
- Be sure to include your name, address and phone number.
- Letter – The good news is that all correspondence to a member of Congress is reviewed and you will almost certainly receive a response. Like an email, your letter should be thoughtful and personal. Because so few people take the time to craft a thoughtful letter, doing so almost guarantees that your letter will capture the attention of the legislator and his staff. (Please note that for security purposes all mail sent via the U.S. Postal Service must be screened off-site first, thereby slowing delivery to congressional offices. If timing is an issue, sending your letter as a .pdf attachment to an email is an acceptable means for delivering your message to Congress.)
- Phone – It is difficult to get a member on the phone, but you can certainly pass on a message or talk to the legislative staff person handing transportation issues. Before calling, review your message, plan to keep you phone call to 5 minutes, and be prepared to give your name, address and phone number. Be sure to ask for a response from the member of Congress. You can use NSSGA’s Toll-Free Washington Action Hotline to reach the U.S. Capitol switchboard. Just dial (866) 255-3207 and ask to be connected with the office of the member of Congress you wish to contact. It is simple, fast and free!
- Meet in Washington – Members make time in their schedules for constituents as long as appointments are made in advance. A good time to come to Washington is during NSSGA’s Legislative and Policy Forum, held in the fall of each year.
- Meet in the district office – This is often an easier and more productive meeting. There are many distractions in Washington, resulting in very brief meetings. Meetings are easier to set up in the district office. Meeting in the district office in no way diminishes your message.
- Attend a local public meeting – Members regularly hold public meetings. Congress will carve out one or two week recesses for members to work in their districts. Look for the schedule on your member’s website. Members will also mail future public or town hall meeting notices to their constituents.
- Issue a speaking invitation – You can invite a member to speak to a local group to which you belong. This is a great way to start a dialogue on highway spending.
- Respond to a survey – many members will send surveys by mail or email to solicit their constituents’ views on issues before Congress. Participate in those surveys and mention highway spending as a top priority.
- Participate in virtual forums – Many members of Congress now hold virtual forums. It is easy and convenient to participate in these online discussions. Visit the member’s website to find more information.
Keep in mind, the more of these things you can do, the better.
Tips for delivering the message
Now that you are ready to contact your member of Congress, there are a few basic principles you should follow to be effective:
- Be factual: Use NSSGA for facts and figures. You do not want to mislead your member of Congress.
- Keep it short and to the point: Time is valuable, whether it is a letter or a meeting. Be sure to state clearly your position and keep it to one issue only.
- Be personal: Use your company stationery. Explain how the issue affects you, your family, and/or your company.
- Provide a solution: Members of Congress hate complainers. Raise the problem but include the solution.
- Be courteous: If you disagree with a member of Congress, do not threaten or argue. Instead, agree to disagree. That way you are more likely to earn the respect of your member of Congress.
- Be a listener: Listen to your member of Congress. By listening, you will gain valuable insight into his or her thinking. You may learn how to better influence your member in the future.
Don’t forget NSSGA: Your association can assist you by providing you with key messages, and offering strategic advice. Don’t forget to keep NSSGA in the loop by providing feedback after the meeting.
Some people are uncomfortable asking for something, especially from a member of Congress. But in this case, it is important to “make the ask.” In fact, the only way to ensure a congressional office thinks about you and your issue for longer than five minutes is to force them to make a decision. And, the only way to force them to make a decision is to ask for something.
The “ask” could be to cosponsor a bill or sign a letter. You might ask the member of Congress to support or oppose legislation pending in committee or on the floor of the House or Senate.
You could ask a member of Congress to visit your plant or quarry, make a statement on the floor about a particular award you won, or write an article for your company newsletter.
As a member of NSSGA, you should consult your association for specific messages on the surface transportation bill. Remember, messages can differ as bills advance during the legislative process.
Ideas for increasing involvement
Key to a successful transportation bill will be mobilizing your company’s employees at the right time during the legislative process. People make the difference. This includes your employees, who also have a great stake in the outcome of the next transportation bill. The following tips can improve our grassroots effectiveness and help secure a better transportation bill:
- Develop a company grassroots policy: When a legislative action alert arrives by email, how will it be handled in your office, division, branch or company? Set up a procedure for distributing alerts throughout the company and insist on employee participation. The more people who contact the member of Congress on a given transportation issue, the more effective the response.
- Engage your state association: Urge your state association to establish a policy for distributing and responding to national grassroots alerts. State associations have the ability to reach beyond the national membership base, thus broadening the reach of the original alert.
- Sponsor a “meet and greet”: Meet and greets can be held in your home and be as simple as inviting your friends and neighbors over for coffee to meet candidates or lawmakers. Meet and greets can also be held at your company. Ask your member to come and meet your employees for an hour and discuss current issues that affect your business.
- Host facility tours: Facility tours are an excellent way for lawmakers to expand their understanding of the transportation construction industry and your company’s importance in the community. Lawmakers can see firsthand how current issues affect your company’s operations. The various operations of transportation construction industries, for instance, are much more memorable seen up close than described on paper.
- Host or attend a fundraiser: One of the most helpful activities that you can do for a political candidate is to host a fundraising event in your home. Campaigns always need money – and planning and hosting an event in your home is a generous contribution of your time and energy. If you cannot host a fundraiser, attend a fundraiser instead.
Join other coalitions
While individuals may initiate change, organized coalitions sustain change over time by defining issues and priorities, gaining support, and holding elected officials accountable for the results.
Join groups who share your point of view. There is strength in numbers. Working in a coalition with others presents an opportunity for you to pool your resources and add your voice to a chorus of voters who share your concerns.
There are numerous partners to consider when forming a coalition. They include local business leaders, local Chamber of Commerce groups, labor unions, transit stakeholders, and AAA. You may have a local coalition already established that is working to grow transportation funding. Consider getting involved.
There are numerous state and local coalitions fighting for increased transportation funding. These coalitions can be helpful when Congress reauthorizes the surface transportation programs in 2014. Your involvement will help ensure the messages of these groups are in accord with the messages being conveyed at the national level.
State and local decision-makers
When it comes to federal transportation funding issues, state and local governments matter. With sizable backlogs of unfunded highway projects, more and more states are turning to debt financing, tolling, the sale or long-term lease of their state transportation assets, and even increases or changes in their motor fuel user fees structure. At the local level, many officials feel that transportation costs, which were traditionally funded by the state, are being shifted to regional agencies and local governments.
State and local officials will be pushing Congress to increase funding levels for transportation projects. It is important for state associations and local companies to work with state and local stakeholders to establish priorities (e.g. increased funding for maintenance), ensure common messages, and to establish an agreed-upon set of facts.
State and local stakeholders include:
- Governor: Appoints head of DOT and submits transportation budget.
- Legislature: Approves annual transportation funding levels and enacts state transportation laws.
- Department of Transportation: Plans, designs, builds, maintains state highway system and develops statewide, long-term transportation plans.
- Mayors, county executives, city and county councils – Control local revenue.
- Local departments of transportation: Manage and operate local roads and streets.
Letters to the editor
Engaging the media is an invaluable tool to enact a well-funded, long-term surface transportation bill. Letters to the editor can educate the public and influence members of Congress.
Most members of Congress and their staffs monitor their hometown newspapers for issues affecting their district and any articles that mention the member of Congress. Use the media to create public support for your positions. Members are always looking to see what the public wants.
Media includes the mainstream press, such as regional newspapers, radio and TV stations. Neighborhood newspapers and civic association newsletters should not be overlooked. Electronic media including internet news sites and blogs are widely read.
Letters to the editor – like letters to members of Congress – should be short, clear, and personal. Cite references including recent newspaper articles or reports from national groups such as TRIP. NSSGA can help you craft a letter to the editor, but using your own words is always better and increases the likelihood that your letter will be published.