What does it take to schedule a meeting with members of Congress? Or their staffers? A lofty title or prestigious law degree? I imagined scheduling a meeting with my members of Congress would require credentials higher than “graduate student.” But I recently met with staffers of my members of Congress on Capitol Hill, and the process was simpler than I thought. I started by making a quick phone call to the DC office of each of my members of Congress to get the contact information for their staffers whose portfolios include biomedical research funding. I then reached out to those staffers directly by email to schedule the meetings. Some staffers sent immediate responses, others required several follow-up emails, but eventually, all of them were receptive to meet with me and hear my requests as a graduate researcher. It turns out I didn’t need a lofty title. I already had all of the qualifications I needed to have a meeting on Capitol Hill—I am a constituent, I am persistent, and I care about scientific research.
Do you care about scientific research? Are you persistent? Then you’ve already got what it takes to engage with members of Congress, too. Ultimately, I found engaging with policymakers is less intimidating than it might seem. The best advice I can offer is to have a specific request when meeting with a member of Congress or staffer. Since most, if not all, of us rely on stable and predictable funding of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), requesting an increase in NIH funding is a good place to start. But you can get even more specific and really catch the attention of your member of Congress or their staffer if you ask them to support “raising the caps.”
A Quick Lesson on the Congressional Budget
To effectively advocate for research funding, you need to know some basics about the budget process. Government spending can be broken down into two main types: mandatory and discretionary spending. Mandatory spending, as the name implies, is required government spending that funds programs such as Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare. Discretionary spending essentially funds all other federal programs and agencies that aren’t included in mandatory spending. Discretionary spending levels are voted on each year by a matching set of appropriations subcommittees in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Funding levels for the NIH are determined by the Labor-Health and Human Services-Education Appropriations Subcommittees. In recent years, NIH funding increases have had strong bipartisan support in the House and Senate.
Given bipartisan support, it would seem that an NIH funding increase is a done deal for fiscal year (FY) 2020. But even if the Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittees in the House and Senate agree upon funding increases, another barrier stands in the way—budget caps. The Budget Control Act of 2011 imposes limits on discretionary spending, preventing any increases in funding without a bipartisan agreement to raise these limits. Lack of a budget resolution to raise the caps can lead to sequestration or a partial or total government shutdown, disrupting the predictability of research funding. Currently, appropriations subcommittees have been working on their bills to determine the funding levels for FY2020, and the House Labor-HHS-Education subcommittee has produced a funding bill that increases NIH funding by $2 billion in FY2020. However, the budget caps have not been raised. We need our members of Congress to raise the caps on non-defense discretionary spending or we can kiss those NIH funding increases goodbye. Therefore, raising the caps is a perfect example of a specific request to ask of your members of Congress.
Ready, Set, Engage!
Now that you have a better idea of how the budget process works, let’s take a moment to practice some policy engagement. First, find the information for your members of Congress. From here, it’s a bit of a “choose your own adventure.”
- Do you love using your social media platform? Then tweet at the official accounts of your members of Congress. Use #RaiseTheCaps to emphasize your specific request.
@(Rep. or Sen.) Please vote to #RaiseTheCaps to enable increases to NIH funding, so researchers like me in (state/district) can continue to (briefly describe research).
- Do you prefer making phone calls? Give your Congressperson’s DC office a call to voice your opinion. Phone calls are an especially effective form of advocacy because the office of your member of Congress can confirm you are actually her or his constituent. If you want a little more guidance, ASCB provides step-by-step instructions for calling your members of Congress.
Hi, my name is (name), and I’m a constituent of Senator/Representative (Sen. or Rep.’s name). I am calling to talk about the importance of raising the budget caps for non-defense discretionary funding. As a researcher, I am strongly in support of raising the caps in order to increase funding for the NIH and NSF, which is crucial to advancements in biomedical research. I hope that (Sen. or Rep.) will support raising the caps for FY2020. Thank you for your time.
- Feeling extra enthusiastic? Schedule in-person meetings with your members of Congress (or one of their staff members). This is the most effective way to communicate your request to your members of Congress. If you want to meet at a local office instead of traveling all the way to D.C., locate the office nearest you on the official website for your member of Congress. Give that office a call and request contact information to schedule a meeting with the legislative assistant whose portfolio includes biomedical research. Reach out to that individual to schedule a specific date and time. If you don’t hear back within three to five days, follow up. Persistence is key to getting your meeting on the calendar. ASCB also has a great guide for this entire process.
Hello (staffer’s name),
My name is (name), and I’m a constituent of Senator/Representative (Sen. or Rep.’s name). I am currently a (position) at (university/institution) in (city). I’m a scientist, and I would like to schedule a meeting with you to discuss how funding for the NIH and NSF impacts researchers like me in (district/state) and across the country. I am available to meet (specific date/week for local office). What time would work best for you to meet?
I can be reached at (email address) or (phone number) to schedule a meeting. I apologize if I am contacting the wrong individual in your office, and I would greatly appreciate it if you could direct me to the appropriate person to contact with this request.
The fun doesn’t have to stop here. ASCB’s Advocacy Toolkit provides all the resources you need to write an op-ed, attend a town hall, invite your Congressperson for a lab visit, or even start your own student policy and advocacy group on campus.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are the views of the author(s) and do not represent the official policy or position of ASCB..
About the Author:
Jami Conley Calderon is a PhD student in Biomedical Sciences at the University of Central Florida. She studies the role of mutant dynein in the peripheral neuropathy Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease type 2O. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @JamiLynnCC