Heretic on the Hill: Phoning it in on Virtual Lobby Day

The pandemic has democratized lobbying. It has not only become accepted that you can meet with Members of Congress and staff on Zoom, it’s almost become the normal way to do it even if you’re in Washington and could drive, subway, or walk to Capitol Hill. As a result, people anywhere can set up or join meetings with Congressional offices from a phone or laptop. Pre-pandemic, this just didn’t happen even though the technology was there. Constituents had to travel to DC. Meeting face to face certainly has its advantages but this is no longer the only way to advocate.

The American Humanist Association and American Atheists held a virtual lobby day this week. Seventy-four people attended Zoom meetings with staffers for their Senators and House members. They were advocating for the passage of the Every Child Deserves a Family Act, which would prohibit any child welfare agency that receives federal funding from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, or religion or the lack of one.

This means that in any foster care agency, and especially if it is a faith-based agency, they cannot use taxpayer money to discriminate against taxpayers because of their sexual orientation, religion, or lack of religion.

How does a virtual lobby day work? First you attend the Zoom training session which AHA/AA held last Saturday. Participants learned about the bill, the talking points, and what to expect on the actual virtual lobby day. They also had a chance to meet with each other because people from the same state would be put together for the meetings with their state delegation. I volunteered to head up a state group because meeting with Capitol Hill staff about a bill you’re not too familiar with can be intimidating for some first-timers. I was given the Iowa meetings, which I prepped for by rewatching Field of Dreams (second best baseball movie ever).

In any Capitol Hill meeting the constituents are going to be the ones who get the most attention. On lobby day I was just there to provide some details about the bill and remind the group beforehand that no one expects them to be experts on the legislative process. They just need to say why they personally think this bill matters.

The Every Child Deserves a Family Act doesn’t have any Republican supporters so far. All three meetings were with Republican offices. I decided the best way to present the bill to them was that it made federally funded foster care programs more efficient and effective by ensuring the largest possible number of potential adoptive families. If you can’t discriminate against them, you have the biggest pool.

I checked the bios of the staffers we would be seeing and they had solidly Republican resumes. One included participating in a Christian group in college. It’s helpful to know these things when you are introducing yourself as from the American Humanist Association and American Atheists. The first meeting was pretty standard; a friendly young guy who didn’t really know much of anything about the bill. A lot of Capitol Hill staff are in their mid-twenties and have hundreds of bills to cover. Being the first people to talk to them about a specific bill can definitely be an advantage.

The second meeting was similar but the staffer had a few more questions which is always a good sign. She didn’t make any promises, which is the appropriate thing to do, but said she would talk to her chief of staff. The final meeting was with a staffer for a Senator whose committee oversees the bill so she was much more familiar with it and the issues that have come up in recent years. She explained his concerns and we talked about the foster care program in Iowa.

In all it was a productive afternoon. The Iowa Congressional Delegation learned about an important bill from humanists and atheists who have their own take on why it’s important. I like in-person meetings but virtual brought Iowans to Capitol Hill for an afternoon and that certainly helps. If you want to add your support to the Every Child Deserves a Family Act, go to our Action Alert and email your representatives.

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