We caught up with former senior House staffer Jimmy Keady to talk about how congressional offices process requests, the role that partisanship plays and how organizations can communicate more effectively. Here’s what he had to say.
Jimmy Keady served as a chief of staff and senior advisor to a Republican in the U.S. House, Political Director for Virginia’s House Republican Campaign Committee, and has extensive political experience, working on more than 50 races nationwide. He now runs JLK Political Strategies and is a partner in the Republican communications firm Point 1.
We spoke with Jimmy about life inside a congressional office, the importance of constituents and how lobbying organizations can more effectively communicate with members of the House. The conversation has been edited for length, clarity and style.
Congressional offices are famously busy. How do they process so many requests and what’s the best way to get facetime in that situation?
News, TV and radio is always going to be a number-one priority when answering communications and constituents are going to be second. Legislative groups, lobbyists and interest groups are pushed to third, just because there’s so much to wade through. One congressional office I worked with had over 60,000 individual requests in a year. As the chief of staff, you probably have 20 meetings a day.
So understanding where to go to in the legislative office and who to talk to in order to get things done is really important. Having the right information is very important. Ultimately, there are a lot of things that get lost, and it’s not done on purpose. It is because they are dealing with such a massive bandwidth.
It’s also important to understand upfront what you are asking the congressional office to do. It might be, ‘we want to call up and talk to you about this piece of legislation.’ Or it might be, ‘we need you to sign onto this bill.’ Relate exactly what you want from the office and give it enough lead time. If we had a constituent group reach out to us and they gave us two weeks notice, we would make it happen.
If you can say ‘there are the three bills that we’d like to talk about, we’re going to give them to you and then we just want 20 minutes to just explain why it impacts our industry and the district,’ that is a way different than, ‘I need 20 minutes with the congressman because he’s my congressman and he should meet with me.’ Remember, there are 100 different groups every week doing the same thing. So the more you can target, communicate and explain, the easier it’s going to be for the congressional office to get you in front of who you need to meet.
Is it important to show ties to a district and an impact on constituents?
Saying ‘we employ this many people in your district’ or ‘we have this many members’ means there’s a direct impact—that should be your opening paragraph. At the end of the day, congressional offices are paid by the taxpayers to represent their district in a meaningful way. So when an interest group or grassroots organization says ‘we’re coming up to The Hill and we represent 10,000 of your constituents,’ or even if it’s ‘we represent 50 of your constituents,’ that’s a big deal. A congressional office will move mountains to make sure that constituents are heard.”
Organizations spend a lot of time creating briefing materials. How important is that?
You have to remember that the member may have just talked to somebody about tax reform, and now he’s talking to somebody about groundwater. Totally different subjects, all within an hour. The better you prep the staff, the better the member is prepped. Ultimately, the staff doesn’t have time to get everything organized. So if you send a member a packet, the staff is going to know more and the member is going to know more. The LD, the LA and chief of staff are the gateway for the information the member knows.
Many staffers say it is important to have a concrete ‘ask’ for the lawmaker and the office. Do you agree?
Definitely. Don’t be afraid to make an ask because that’s what the member wants. They want to help. Sometimes groups get in there, they have a 25-minute dialogue and then the member says, ‘what can I do?’ Always come in with an ask. Be blunt about it and talk about why it is important. Because, ultimately, if the member thinks it is something that’s going to impact his or her district, they are going to help their people.
What role does partisanship play when meeting with a congressional office?
The partisan groups are not helpful. The bipartisan groups will always get time because they care about an issue. They are always gonna be welcomed. But the partisan groups that come in and their job is to just yell and wreak havoc on the office, those are the ones that are resented.
There’s a lot of work that’s not really spoken about. In the office where I was chief, we prided ourselves on the work we did for our veterans and for healthcare. We did a lot of that kind of stuff. That’s the real work that we do in a congressional office that makes a difference. And every minute we have to spend on a group who is angry at us is a minute that we can’t spend to help people in the district.
What role do district offices play?
One woman who worked for me when I was chief had been in that position since the 80s, and she had worked for Democrats and Republicans. She was awesome—she knew every single person in every single agency. I think sometimes the public and lobbying groups forget that the district staff are people from the district and their careers are actually not policy. They’re there to help the district. This lady was amazing.
If you are a community group that is trying to make an impact, go through both. Talk to the district staff and then also make the hit up in DC. I think always going through both avenues works. Turnover is so high in congressional offices that making more contacts is not going to hurt you.
What about holding rallies, running ads or using media in the district?
I would just caution organizations that if you want to have a positive response, then run a positive story. You know what I mean? I have dealt with groups before that haven’t talked to us and then run something negative. In a congressional office, that can be a huge thing. I’ve got to deal with a negative press inquiry. Then, they call me and say they want a meeting. You’ll get your meeting, because you’re a constituent, but realize that you just went to the media and trashed us. Now you want to have a fair talk and it’s difficult to do that.
If you’ve called five times and nobody has responded back to you, then I can guess your frustration and see why you would think about going to media. But if you called us once on a Tuesday and you’re out the door to media on a Thursday, understand that’s going to impact the meeting. Because at the end of the day, there are a lot of people who want our attention. And if there’s already a hostile bent to the meeting, then you’re gonna get lumped in with those partisan groups. So I always encourage groups, ‘hey, come talk to us and have a discussion.’
How about follow-ups and thank yous—do staffers notice?
As congressional staff, we always knew what we did wrong but we never knew what we did right. A ‘thank you for taking the time’ goes a long way, particularly with the vitriol that comes from everywhere. I remember a group that came in and the member couldn’t meet with them, so I had to fill in. A week later, I got a really nice note from the director saying, ‘Hey, we might not always agree, but we really appreciate you taking the meeting and thank you for everything.’ They didn’t have to do that. Of course, the next time that guy called me, I said, ‘sure, I can try to fit you in.’ At the end of the day, this is about relationships.