Heretic on the Hill: It’s Good to Know Your Legislators

By Scott MacConomy, SCA’s Director of Policy and Government Affairs.

The title may be Heretic on the Hill but some of the most important advocacy work gets done off the Hill. A chance to talk with Members of Congress in a relaxed setting where they don’t have to worry about which way to vote on the next amendment is invaluable. That opportunity came along last weekend at a legislative retreat in the Washington suburbs. I was able to talk to eleven United States Senators, thank some of them for their support on secular issues such as the Do No Harm Act, and ask others to consider supporting our legislative priorities. There was also a chance to ask several of their senior staff about what’s happening in this busy month on Capitol Hill and get to know them in the process. The staff are vital to the follow-up for anything a Senator agrees to do.

One of the other guests at this event was a Senator I used to work for who has returned to the private sector at the suggestion of the voters. He now petitions the government just like I do, just as the First Amendment provides for. In addition to stating that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” the First Amendment also ensures the right “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” So I spend a lot of time petitioning the government on your behalf for a redress of grievances when it looks like Congress might pass a “law respecting an establishment of religion.” Just like James Madison set it up in one simple amendment.

The opportunity to attend this retreat came along because I believe in getting to know legislators from both parties who believe in the separation of church and state and who vote accordingly. If you get to know your legislators, follow their voting records, and volunteer for them when they run for re-election, you will also have opportunities to meet with them outside their offices. (They need people who will make phone calls, knock on doors, talk to people at farmers markets, and other things most of us can find time to do.) Once you get to know them, you can let them know that you appreciate their support for secular causes and explain what it means to you personally.

Over time these relationships help us tremendously in Washington. If we can go into a meeting with a Member of Congress who already knows about our issues and knows constituents from the secular community back home, whatever specific request we have that day is much more likely to be viewed favorably. And if you happen to be coming to Washington, let us know and we will set up your meetings and go with you.

Congress is focused on economic issues this month: funding the government for the next fiscal year, increasing the debt limit to pay for last year, and passing the President’s infrastructure and economic agenda. But I have found Hill staff with enough time available to meet on some of our specific issues. The Scientific Integrity Act will be reintroduced in the Senate after a White House report comes out that examines all the ways government scientists were interfered with under the previous Administration. It has already been introduced in the House, so the two versions will likely be significantly different and need a compromise version to get all the way to the President’s desk.

I’m also following up with staff for the Senators I met with on their support for the Do No Harm Act. When Senators say they will support something, it’s not over until their staffer calls the right staffer for the bill’s sponsor and says please add my boss’s name to the bill. Sometimes you have to stay on top of them. My approach is, I’ll be the staffer for the staffers, get them the info they need, make their jobs as easy as possible. More on this in our SCA Legislative Toolkit, coming out soon!

(The picture above was from a Labor Day Picnic held by my local representative and CFC Member, Congressman Don Beyer. Like I said, it's good to get to know your legislators!)

Be sure to sign up to our email list to receive a copy of Heretic on the Hill in your inbox, Scott’s bi-monthly update on our advocacy work on behalf of nontheist Americans and the separation of religion and government.

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