Legislative Forum: Tips and What to Expect

February 1, 2014, Department, by David Tyahla

2013 Legislative Forum attendees wait for an audience with Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC).The 2014 Legislative Forum (March 25–26) is fast approaching, and whether you’re a seasoned veteran of past events or planning your first visit to our nation’s capital to be the voice for parks and recreation, we want you to feel as prepared as possible to ensure your March trip is a great experience.

Late March is when spring begins to really settle in around our nation’s capital. In fact, the city’s annual Cherry Blossom Festival will be occurring at the same time. Weather typically ranges between 45 and 60 degrees with about a one-in-three chance of precipitation. So, dress to be warm and dry, but your heavy winter parka shouldn’t be necessary. However, check your favorite weather resource as you pack — D.C. has been known to get snow in March!

Business attire is strongly recommended when meeting with your elected leaders, but you’ll be doing plenty of walking while at Legislative Forum and should pack comfortable walking shoes. Bring a stack of business cards — more than you’ll think you’ll need — to distribute over the course of your meetings and events. 

Prior to Arriving in D.C.

Contact your state association as soon as possible and let staff know that you plan to attend Legislative Forum. For contact information, visit www.nrpa.org/stateassociations. Most of the state affiliate executive directors and presidents regularly attend the Forum and organize the Congressional and Senate visits for your state. They will be able to share this schedule and to provide you with important resources on how you can assist with the various visits on the Hill. It is always simpler and more effective to have a small coalition from each state in these visits. 

If your state association does not schedule the meetings, then please be sure to schedule your meetings as early as possible. Call the Capitol Switchboard at 202.224.3121 and ask to be connected to the office of your senators or representative. Once connected, ask for the scheduler and tell him or her that you are a constituent and would like to meet with the senator/representative or someone from his or her staff. Advise the scheduler of the issues you wish to discuss so that he or she can ensure the correct staff person attends the meeting. 

Congressional schedules are very hectic and can change quickly. In planning your meetings, allow for an extra ten minutes on top of the time needed between meetings in case the meeting begins late or takes longer than expected. 

The NRPA Public Policy Team will be hosting two pre-event webinars — free for registrants — that will highlight this year’s legislative platform as well as travel and meeting tips, and they will allow you to ask questions as you prepare for your trip. Dates for these webinars are February 26 and March 12, and all registrants will receive emailed details for how to attend. Additional training will occur at Legislative Forum prior to your day on Capitol Hill. 

Decide which issues you want to discuss with your senators and representatives, and gather statistics and facts you can use to discuss the issues prior to your arrival in D.C. To maximize your impact, highlight only one or two issues, and find ways to tie them to state and local examples of projects that have been or could be funded through the federal program. A famous political maxim is, “All politics is local!” So, make sure you “connect the dots” to how the policy and spending decisions being made on Capitol Hill impact your work locally. 

Fact sheets for each of the platform issues will be posted on the NRPA website prior to the Legislative Forum for you to review. Once you’re in D.C., you’ll receive a spiral-bound program guide that will have a copy of each fact sheet you can use as a reference for talking points while in D.C. 

Finally, do a little homework on your senators and representatives prior to coming to D.C. Learn about their background, hobbies, previous service at the state or local level, and their position on issues impacting parks and recreation. A great place to start is online at www.house.gov, www.senate.gov and www.congress.gov

The Day of Your Visit

Be on time, if not a little early. Allow for enough time to get through security, keeping in mind that lines can be long. To expedite security clearance, do not wear excessive jewelry or carry unnecessary items in your pockets. Assume that anything that might be an issue when you go through airport security would also be a problem when attempting to enter the Capitol office complex. 

Prior to the meeting, decide who in your group will open the discussion. House members primarily care about their individual districts. Try to have a member of your group who either lives or works in the representative’s district open the discussion and make the constituency connection. 

During the Visit

Be confident in your ability to promote the importance of parks and recreation. You know firsthand the importance of parks and recreation to your community, and you are simply telling your story. It is a story that your elected officials really do want to hear.

Silence your cellphone during your meetings. Do not read or send electronic messages during meetings. Give them your undivided attention.

Most Hill visits are brief (15–20 minutes), and it is very likely you will meet with the staff person who handles park and recreation issues for the member of Congress. Be sure to exchange business cards with each staff person at the end of the meeting. 

Have everyone in your group briefly introduce themselves. Give a short overview of the number of people employed by your agency and the number of citizens who annually use your facilities and programs. Members of Congress and staff translate this into votes and jobs.

Never discuss fundraisers or political contributions — nothing that is considered “political activity.”

Be concise, but be specific and make the “ask” — share NRPA’s position on the issues you are discussing and ask the member of Congress or the staffer if they are willing to support this position and bring this agenda item to fruition. Offer how you can help to do that. 

If the member of Congress or staffer you meet with holds an opinion different from your position, do not be confrontational or argumentative. Try to gain an understanding of why he or she holds that position and be prepared to offer alternatives on ways they can be helpful. NRPA Public Policy webinars and training will prepare you to respond to some of the most common reasons members of Congress may express opposition to policy positions.

When You Get Home

Send a thank-you note by email to everyone you met with and remind them of your ask and why they should support your position. 

Follow up on any requests made at the meeting. Your day on the Hill was about making an ask, establishing yourself as a resource and taking the first step to building a relationship with congressional staff, so make sure you also stay in touch with the contacts you made going forward.


David Tyahla is NRPA’s Senior Government Affairs Manager.