Heretic on the Hill: Getting Lucky on Lobby Day

Four amateur lobbyists, five meetings on Capitol Hill, and one goal: build support for the Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency Act (SCERT). That was my team at the Secular Coalition’s first in-person lobby day in four years. The event began with a reception last Thursday evening which featured remarks from Congressman Jared Huffman, who founded the Congressional Freethought Caucus, and from Congressman Hank Johnson who authored SCERT. Hearing about a bill from its author is a great way to learn how to sell it.

We need this bill because it would require the Supreme Court to disclose as much about who is paying for their meals, travel, and gifts as members of Congress have to, and to develop and follow a code of ethics. Revelations last year about a religious advocacy group that met with Justices and encouraged them on how to rule on cases showed how necessary improved transparency and ethics are for the Court. It now has a 58 percent disapproval rating.

Friday morning everyone met in the Rayburn House Office Building for breakfast and last minute lobbying tips. Teams were assigned based mostly on geography. I headed out with two Virginians and two North Carolinians who had a busy meeting schedule. We started in a North Carolina Republican’s office where we met with the legislative director. She was interested in the bill and impressed that constituents had come to Washington to talk about Supreme Court ethics. (I’ve been told before that it’s nice to meet with someone who’s not asking for money for something.) The constituents who come to Lobby Day are the key to successful meetings. They always lead the discussion and make the “ask” at the end because they are the main attraction in these meetings, not the Washington DC guy.

Next we went by the only office where we had not been able to schedule a Lobby Day meeting. It’s a newly elected House member and maybe they are not entirely staffed up yet. What has worked before on other Lobby Days is to go by the office anyway and tell the receptionist that we hadn’t been able to schedule a meeting and just want to drop off our briefing materials. The idea is that they won’t want a constituent to go away unhappy so someone will hopefully give us a few minutes. And that’s just what the deputy chief of staff did! She wasn’t familiar with our issue but being the first one to present something is usually an advantage. So we got lucky there.

Our next two meetings were productive but, as is usually the case, no promises were made about supporting SCERT. Congressional offices have a process for making those decisions so we were there to get the ball rolling. Our final meeting was in the office of Congressman Gerry Connolly from Virginia. We had a meeting scheduled with a staff member because Congressman Connolly had a committee hearing that afternoon and then a flight to join a group of legislators from NATO countries who advise about NATO policy.

We happened to be in the outer office when Congressman Connolly came back from the hearing. Our Virginia constituent got his attention by saying she lives in his neighborhood. He then gave us a five minute discourse, going back to Marbury v. Madison in 1803, on how Congress does have the authority to require the Supreme Court to follow the requirements in SCERT. He said he also supports funding for cameras in the Supreme Court and in courts at the lower levels. And he said he would definitely support our bill, which is all the process we needed in that office. So we got lucky there too.

All in all Lobby Day was a big success. Amateur lobbyists became accomplished lobbyists. We raised awareness of the need to improve Supreme Court ethics and transparency. And the attendees had the chance to see the cherry blossoms blooming. We can’t promise that for next year but we are already talking about Lobby Day 2024.


Spreading Happiness

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