March Madness in the Senate has little to do with coming out of the Union Station Metro and being handed a bracket for the basketball playoffs, which did actually happen to me. No, March Madness refers to the unusually frenetic pace of meetings that has characterized this past month.
Meetings come in many different varieties. At the top of the heap are constituent meetings, in which we learn about the concerns of the people who live in our state. Most offices work extremely hard to make sure that we have time to meet with concerned constituents, whether they travel to DC or they contact one of the state offices. When the Senator’s name appears in the news connected to a certain issue, we are also frequently contacted by lobbyists who want to make sure that we understand the perspective of their stakeholders.
We also request meetings. When we are trying to write legislation, we will often reach out to the stakeholder groups to make sure that the resulting bill is the best possible fit for all parties and that it addresses everyone’s concerns. It is important to think about what problem is being solved and who might be affected by it. Likewise we will have meetings with staff from committees or with other offices who might consider co-sponsoring a bill. I have also found personal meetings with the analysts at the Congressional Research Service to be invaluable for learning about or refining my understanding of a new policy area.
The intensity of March meetings relates to the generous number of conferences held in DC during this month, many of which include a day to visit representatives on the Hill. Prior to these conferences, we receive meeting requests from many of our constituents who want to come to talk about the issues that are important to their groups. People representing local governments, different healthcare or disease groups, or scientists concerned about cuts in research funding are just a few examples of our visitors.
There is a certain excitement to meeting with your senator or congressperson, but most commonly visitors will meet with staff. I know that some years ago when I was first encouraged to set up meetings with my senator and congressman that I thought, “Maybe I’ll get lucky and I’ll get to meet with my actual elected official.” I ended up meeting with staff members instead, but I have quickly learned that for talking details, the staff are actually ideal. Senators cover a vast range of topics compared to staffers who have a narrower range that they dig into in great depth. I can now find consolation for my original disappointment knowing that advocacy groups often go directly to staff members rather than requesting meetings with the head honcho. I also understand that I visited in August when Congress is on recess, so my representatives were all home in Connecticut at the time anyway.
Still, there is certainly a magic to meeting with the senator, so many offices will try to provide an opportunity for constituents to interact directly with the senator. In our office, that’s “Colorado Coffee” on Wednesday mornings when we are in session. Because March Madness affects even our Colorado Coffee events, we have moved the event out of our conference room and into a committee hearing room down the hall. Because most people let us know in advance that they are coming, we can make sure that the constituents talk to the staff closest to their interest areas, and one of our amazing schedulers helps make all of those connections. For half of the hour of Colorado Coffee, constituents chat with staff about their issues. During the second half, the Senator comes in, makes some remarks, and then spends some time responding to questions. School groups will often take advantage of this opportunity to interact with the Senator, and often they will squeeze in time for a picture.
Given my choice, I would actually chose the craziness of days filled with meetings over days that have no meetings at all. I find that the meetings provide variety in the day and make it go by faster. I have especially enjoyed meeting with the constituents and hearing their stories. I have found the residents of my adopted state to be resilient, creative, cooperative, and amazingly courageous in dealing with challenges. It is a true honor to receive their stories and be able to work with them this year.