If you want your voice to be heard in Washington, you should stay in contact with Congressional staff members and the lawmakers, said a former Congressional aide.
"You need to interface with pertinent staff because they are the key people who filter what a Congressman reads or works on," said David R. Wunsch, who served as a Congressional Science Fellow in 1998. "Learn who handles the issues of concern to you and talk with them. Some staff has no concept of issues that are assigned to them and they are looking for someone to inform them."
Speaking during the National Ground Water Association (NGWA) Convention in Las Vegas, Wunsch said the average Congressional staff member has worked a little more than two years in his current job because lawmakers' staffers are usually young and change jobs frequently.
"You have to constantly keep building relationships, because the people are constantly changing," he said.
He added it is also important to express opinions on issues in ways such as writing letters to the editor of local newspapers because Congressmen read the newspapers from their districts and will see the letters. He said it is also important to write letters and send e-mail regarding important issues so the Congressman or his staff can have a sampling of constituents' opinions on key topics.
Another important means of being heard in Washington is by joining professional societies and public affairs groups, which represent and can make comments and express opinions on behalf of large numbers of members. Wunsch said many of these groups also offer Web pages featuring legislative alert sections related to issues in Congress.
Wunsch, the New Hampshire state geologist, said it is also important to talk directly with Congressmen about issues, but he said they are 'pummeled with an inordinate amount of information,' and cannot read every bill they may hear about.
Noting there are very few scientists working in Congress, Wunsch said of more than 10,000 US House staff members in the 106th Congress last year only four were geoscientists. Among members of the 106th Congress, Wunsch said only one was a geologist and only two were scientists with doctorates. There were 162 lawyers, 160 businessmen, 106 members from public service such as other elected offices, 82 educators, and 9 engineers.
Although many people believe the purpose of a legislative body such as Congress is solely to create new laws, Wunsch said it also prevents bad legislation from becoming law. Illustrating that very little legislation actually becomes law. Wunsch said the 102nd Congress, from 1991-92, had a total of 10,238 bills introduced, but only 590 were signed into law.
He said factors which influence whether a bill becomes a law include presidential support, policies of the Congressional leaders, seniority of the member who introduces the bill, number of co-sponsors, timing of the measure, and committee chairman's attitude toward the bill.
"It takes a lot of work to get a bill through Congress," Wunsch emphasized. "A lot of game playing needs to be done. You can think of Congress as a giant chess match where they move things around to get what they want."