Mr. and Ms. Librarian Go to Washington: VALL Members Participate in AALL’s Day on the Hill

by Fred Dingledy

This year’s AALL Annual Meeting and Conference was held in Washington, D.C., which not only proved a convenient location for VALL members, but also gave conference-goers a chance to meet their U.S. Representatives and Senators as a part of the 2009 Day on the Hill, sponsored by the AALL Government Relations office.

Day on the Hill took place on Friday, July 24, the day before the main conference began, but still received a strong turnout – the Government Relations office reports that more than 75 members from across the country took advantage of the opportunity, including a librarian from Japan’s National Diet Library. Virginia was proudly represented by a strong contingent – joining me at the event were Heather Harrell Buchanan from the Suffolk Circuit Court Library; Robert Davis from the Prince William County Public Law Library; Tom Pulver from the Fairfax Public Law Library; and Roger Skalbeck from Georgetown University Law Library.

After introductions all around, Mary Alice Baish and Emily Feldman from the Government Relations office gave a presentation on “Hot Topics on AALL’s Policy and Legislative Agenda”, summarizing the topics that we would be discussing with our Representatives and Senators later in the day, including free public access to PACER; easy and free public access to Congressional Research Service reports; and funding for the Law Library of Congress.

Next, we heard from “advocacy guru” Stephanie Vance, who gave an entertaining program with group tips on effective advocacy. Some of the more entertaining tips were of the “stuff you’d hope people wouldn’t need to be told, but apparently they do” variety:

· If your meeting is with a politician’s staffer instead of their boss, don’t express disappointment that you’re meeting with “just” them.
· Don’t ask how much the Honorable Representative/Senator was paid to advocate a position.

Stephanie also offered suggestions on how participants could craft their message to best grab politicians’ attention, and demonstrated with the able help of one brave soul who volunteered to do a mock walk-and-talk with her. Stephanie left her audience with several valuable takeaways, among them:

· Be sure to know exactly what you want and clearly ask for it. Don’t accept a general “we love libraries” for an answer.
· If you’re meeting as a group, coordinate your message. Everyone doesn’t have to speak at every meeting.
· Have a personal story that illustrates why it’s important Congress grant your request. Your request sticks in the mind much better as “I want to make it easier for John and Jane Prose to find the bankruptcy filings they need” than as an abstract concept like “public access to U.S. District Court documents fulfills an important need”.
· There’s a good chance you’ll only have five minutes to meet. Be sure you can condense your message accordingly.
· Be persistent (but not overly so). Be sure to follow up – suggesting a site visit is often a good way to bring your message home. E-mail is often a better option than snail mail, since physical mail has to be irradiated in a facility in New Jersey (a side effect of the anthrax letters from a few years ago) before it arrives in Congressional offices in D.C. Physical mail sent to district offices may not be subject to the same holdup, though.
· Remember that Representatives’ and Senators’ staffers are your friends. They’re the ones doing most of the research work, and they’ve got their boss’s ear. Having the staff on your side can help you greatly; getting on their bad side won’t help you at all.

After Ms. Vance’s presentation came break-out sessions for each state’s delegation, followed by a brief Q&A session and parting words from Mary Alice, Emily, and Stephanie.

After a brief lunch, it was time to meet Congress. I’ll have to admit to a case of nerves beforehand, this is the first time I’ve been involved in lobbying like this. Fortunately, our group had learned our lessons well, and the people at each office were friendly and courteous.

We started our meetings with Virginia’s U.S. Senators. Emily Feldman joined our group for these meetings. First stop was Sen. Jim Webb’s office, where we met with Legislative Correspondent Courtney Weaver. After meeting with Ms. Weaver, we discussed AALL identified issues with Nicholas Devereux, Senior Legislative Correspondent for Sen. Mark Warner. Finally, Heather, Robert, and Tom joined me for a meeting with Brent Robinson, Senior Legislative Assistant for Rep. Rob Wittman (Va. 1st Dist.).

Rather than try to cover the entire range of issues concerning AALL, we believed it better to focus on one or two issues, so we devoted most of our time towards two issues:

1. Asking Congress to encourage the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts to revive a pilot program aimed towards allowing free public access to PACER; and
2. Encouraging the Senate Rules and Administration Committee to pass S.Res. 118, which would create a system for easy and fee public access to Congressional Research Service reports.

My nerves quickly calmed after a couple of minutes as we began discussing the issues. The CRS Reports in particular seemed to be a very popular resource among Congressional staffers, and they seemed interested in granting the public access to these valuable resources. When it came to both issues, staffers did have questions of their own: Was PACER’s $.08/page cost really unreasonable? Shouldn’t Congressional staff be able to get a chance to review CRS reports before the public, since they’re the intended audience? It wasn’t really hostile questioning, though, it seemed to me more along the lines of making sure they get all sides of the issue in the grand legal tradition.

So, although I was a little hesitant before the day began and wondered what I’d gotten myself into, by the end I was glad I’d participated. It was informative getting to meet the people representing me in Congress – and dare I say, actually fun. It’s easy to get cynical about the political process, but it’s important to take part. Congress can’t know what law librarians want unless we tell them, and the men and women of Congress and their staffs really do want to listen.

The Government Relations office has created a page for this event at http://www.aallnet.org/aallwash/toolkit/dayonhill3-3.asp with a copy of Mary Alice Baish and Emily Feldman’s presentation, along with Stephanie Vance’s. The site also has links to AALL Issue Briefs covering “hot topics” of special interest to the organization.

If you want to contact your U.S. Senators and Representative, check their website. Sites usually have information setting up appointments and contact information:

· Sen. Mark Warner’s website is at http://warner.senate.gov/public/.
· Sen. Jim Webb’s website is at http://webb.senate.gov/. To find your local U.S. Representative’s website, go to the House’s homepage at http://www.house.gov/ and enter your ZIP+4 (yes, you do need to know the +4 part as well) in the “Find Your Representative” form at the upper-left corner of the screen (it’s in the darker title bar area of the page).

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