Aaron Stetter: How to engage Congress from a distance

Laptop and Capitol building illustration

Community bankers should take advantage of this month’s recess for virtual advocacy.

By Aaron Stetter

In-person political fundraisers and office visits may be canceled, but that doesn’t mean community bankers can relax their efforts to engage with members of Congress.

There are still opportunities to reach out to members and their staff. With Election Day not that far off, community bankers can’t afford to back off from advocacy efforts, especially when it comes to responding to COVID-19, addressing unfair credit union competition and closing the industrial loan company (ILC) loophole, among a host of other key policy issues.

How to reach out to Congress

The response to the COVID-19 pandemic has overtaken many congressional offices as constituents struggle with job loss, childcare, healthcare and economic uncertainty. Community bankers are community leaders who are working tirelessly to aid individuals and small businesses, including moving mountains to quickly and effectively implement the ever-changing Paycheck Protection Program and get much-needed cash to small businesses trying to preserve jobs. Members of Congress therefore welcome and even rely on your direct input. They know community bankers have their fingers on the pulse of Main Street America.

The key is to find the best method to reach out.
ICBA has partnered with the Congressional Management Foundation (CMF), a nonprofit that works with members of Congress and their staff to improve operations and interactions with constituents. CMF has done extensive research into how constituents can best engage with Congress in a time of social distancing.

Seth Turner, CMF’s director of citizen engagement, says Congress has fully embraced online communications, such as video meetings and online and telephone town halls, but it’s important to let the member or their staffer decide on the format.

Virtual meetings

Nearly all members of Congress (about 80%) have adopted video conferencing, with the House adopting Microsoft Teams and the Senate using WebEx for security reasons, Turner says. These platforms can be great for small group meetings in which multiple bankers visit with a member of Congress. You could also take them on a virtual tour of the bank to show how your bank serves the community.

It’s essential to work out the technical issues ahead of time. Turner recommends showing up for the meeting 15 minutes early and making one attendee responsible for dealing with glitches like audio problems. It’s also worth considering cutting down the number of attendees. The more attendees, the greater potential for issues. You don’t want to waste 20 minutes of a 40-minute meeting dealing with computer problems.

Not everyone is eager for yet another video call, especially Congressional staffers who might be working from cramped Capitol Hill apartments with roommates, Turner says. Yet, these staff relationships are incredibly valuable. CMF’s research finds members of Congress overwhelmingly trust their staff to work toward their goals. They put tremendous stock in their advice and input. Staff, such as legislative directors, have the time to really dig into issues and report back to their bosses. These are the key relationships community bankers need to build and nurture. If those staff members or the representative would prefer an old-fashioned phone call, recognize it as the opportunity it is.

Resources for being heard

Don’t know where to start with reaching out to your members of Congress? Visit the ICBA Be Heard grassroots action center at icba.org/beheard for sample emails and more.

Don’t write off town halls as virtual cattle calls. These moderated events give constituents the chance to ask questions and hear directly from their member. The key is not to be a wallflower and make the most of the opportunity.

Begin by introducing yourself: Give your name, your role at the bank and your ICBA member status. Then ask your question as clearly and concisely as possible. It’s a good idea to write it down ahead of time to help you stay on point and avoid rambling.

One huge advantage of town halls is the potentially large audience, which can number in the thousands, Turner says. If your representative agrees with your position, they’re going on record in a very public way.

Town halls aren’t always advertised on social media or a member’s website, Turner says. Sometimes invitations for telephone town halls come via an automated phone call just before the meeting is set to begin. To have a shot at invitations to these more exclusive events, make sure you sign up for your member’s legislative newsletter and share your phone number and email. If given an option, indicate your interest in banking, commerce, the economy or a similar topic to increase the likelihood of being included in town halls related to those issues, Turner adds.

In-person meetings

Just 3% of congressional offices were allowing in-person events as of late spring, Turner says. About of one-quarter of representatives were making site visits, mostly to locations dealing directly with COVID-19.

If your representative is open to in-person meetings and you are comfortable with it, make sure you follow recommended social distancing restrictions. Email and letters are also options.

We may be in the heart of summer, but now is not the time to take a vacation on advocacy efforts. Make sure you’re using this month’s recess to reach out to your member and their staff.

Aaron Stetter (aaron.stetter@icba.org) is ICBA executive vice president of policy and political operations