Want to Lose When You Testify on the Hill? Ignore the Staff

Welcome back to this series of excerpts from my new research report Thrill on the Hill: How to Turn Congressional Testimony into Public Policy Success. Stay tuned for more in weeks to come.

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It is impossible to overestimate the importance of staff on Capitol Hill. These experts have the boss’ ear and are many times the true decision-makers. “They can either make you look good or embarrass you,” says one participant in our recent survey surrounding Congressional testimony.

Another respondent labels Hill staff “almost as, if not more, important than the members themselves.” (Woe be to the staffer who ever says that to a member of Congress’s face; that would be a certain career killer).

Maintaining good relations with Capitol Hill staff can lead to better intelligence gathering by your company. “Previous conversations with staffers can indicate biases” on the part of members, says one respondent.

Let’s talk about the two types of staff you may encounter. Most executives are familiar with the personal staff of a member of Congress. These are the individuals who operate her office and can have a wide range of responsibilities, particularly on the House side. One legislative assistant, for example, may deal with issues related to transportation, military affairs, and energy. Thanks to larger staffs, portfolios in Senate offices tend to be narrower with workers often focused on a single issue.

Staff, Team, Business, Together, Group, Teamwork, Human

The second set of staffers works for the committee. These workers tend to be older and more experienced in the specific issues under the committee’s purview. This is the group you are likely to work with before and after your testimony appearance.

Members of Congress rely heavily on their staffs out of necessity. Staff members “decide the witness list; they write the questions,” discloses one of our experts.

This notion is echoed by yet another, who says, “Congressional staff are helpful in preparing their Members of Congress for the hearing.” This individual also notes that you are required to provide your written testimony to committee staff beforehand. “By having testimony in advance, congressional staff are able to prepare questions and brief their bosses about your concerns and perspective. If possible, it can be helpful to have witnesses do a conference call with key committee staff in advance of the hearing as well.”

Members are tugged in many directions on any given day, popping in to a hearing by one committee hashing out a health care issue, then speeding directly to another panel working through education matters. As a result, they depend on staff to steer them appropriately.

Staff does not typically play an active role posing questions during the hearing itself, with the very occasional exception of the committee counsel. “They are most important before and after the testimony,” explains public affairs expert Michael Hogan, and can play an important role in helping to “see that follow-up goes your way.”

Even with all this power and respect, “They have very little control over what their bosses actually say during the course of the hearing,” says one expert. Yes, representatives and senators do sometimes stray from the script and cause ulcers among the staff.

What does this mean for you? Ignore or denigrate Congressional staff at your own peril. As noted above, the boss listens to them and leans on them for what can be a final decision on how to handle the particulars of any issue, including yours. Treat staff with utmost respect.

What advice do you have for treating Capitol Hill staff with TLC?

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