LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
For all the campaigning and schmoozing members of Congress have to do, the vast majority of Americans will never actually meet their lawmakers. Now, to be fair, not everyone wants to, but among those who do want that face to face encounter, there is serious competition for a lawmaker's time. So how does an average citizen get access on Capitol Hill. NPR's Ailsa Chang sorts through some tactics.
AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: About 2.5 million visitors pour into the U.S. Capitol every year and most of them come right through here, the Capitol visitor center where Randall Hopkins mans one of the front desks. OK. So if I just came up right to this desk and I told you, hey, I want to meet my lawmaker, my congressman, what would you tell me?
RANDALL HOPKINS: We'll give you a little map and give you the office number and just send you across the street and you can just walk right in and talk with your senators right then.
CHANG: I can walk right in and talk to my senator.
HOPKINS: Yeah, you can walk right in - usually, a staffer, but if the senator's available, they'll usually come out and talk to you.
CHANG: Well, maybe. But let's be realistic. When it comes to face time with a member of Congress, there are 535 of them and there are 314 million of you. You can certainly try calling your congressperson's office to set up an appointment or you can take it a step further.
KEVIN SCHULTZE: Hi, Kevin Schultze calling or the Association of Community Cancer Centers.
CHANG: Actually, Schultze works for a company called Soapbox Consulting. It's one of those D.C. businesses with one primary mission, to get you in the door of a lawmaker's office. Now Soapbox isn't a lobbying firm. They don't argue an issue for you. What they do is get you face time by hitting the phones hard.
SCHULTZE: There are so many requests on the desks of these schedulers, they tell us, that anything we can do to slow that down or to perk up their ears, we will use it.
CHANG: What does this mean? Well, dropping strategic details.
SCHULTZE: The first thing we always lead with is the address, to show that that person is a constituent. But we have used information like, this person is a cousin of the congressman, this person went to high school with the congressman, this person lived in the same dorm as the congressman.
CHANG: Does this work? Well, Soapbox can get you into to a lawmaker's office but most of the meetings it lands are with staff members, not with the lawmakers themselves, which is fine for Soapbox's main clientele, advocacy groups that want to hit dozens of congressional offices on one specific lobby day. A coordinated visit like that will cost you a few thousand dollars with Soapbox.
It's not cheap, but if access is what you want, you may want to spend even more by donating directly to a lawmaker's campaign. Two political science graduate students recently found that might work a lot better.
DAVID BROOCKMAN: What we wanted to do with this study was to examine to what extent are legislators taking meetings with donors precisely because they've donated.
CHANG: David Broockman of the University of California, Berkeley, and Joshua Kalla at Yale University, teamed up to conduct a little experiment last summer. They sent emails to 191 members of Congress, asking for a meeting to discuss a chemical-banning bill. All the messages were identical, except for two words. One email template asked the lawmaker to meet with, quote, "local campaign donors." The other asked the lawmaker to meet with local constituents. Guess which email got more meetings?
BROOCKMAN: So the offices who just thought they were being asked to meet with normal constituents, we almost never got a meeting with a member of Congress, or a chief of staff or a legislative director, the most powerful people in congressional offices. On the other hand, when we reveal that the attendees were donors, they were more than three times as likely to get those meetings.
CHANG: Three times as likely to get a high-level meeting. Donors. The study, of course, doesn't answer one question. Even if donors were getting in the door more often, were they getting the results they wanted? It seems that might cost even more money.
(SOUNDBITE OF AD)
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: At Herbalife, we have a great product and we have a great business opportunity.
CHANG: Maybe you're heard of a nutritional supplement company called Herbalife. It's recruited millions of people, worldwide, to pedal its product.
(SOUNDBITE OF AD)
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: My Herbalife business has been so important to me because in the entertainment industry, there's full speed and then there's slow.
CHANG: Herbalife is a story about how one political donor is getting the results he wants. Bill Ackman is a hedge fund manager who bet a billion dollars on the demise of this company. And to take Herbalife down, he spent $264,000 lobbying last year. He also donated more than $32,000 to the general campaign of Senate Democrats. What kind of access does someone with this kind of money get? Here's Ackman on a webcast responding to a New York Times story about his offensive.
BILL ACKMAN: Beginning in the summer of 2013, myself and a few colleagues went down to Washington, D.C. to meet with senators and congressmen that our political advisors thought might be interested in our concerns about Herbalife.
CHANG: The spokesperson for Democrat Linda Sanchez of California told NPR the congresswoman met personally with Ackman, and Ackman says he got an entire hour in the office of Democratic Sen. Ed Markey, of Massachusetts, to meet with key staffers who investigate big business. Now, Ackman says he has never donated individually to either member, but both of them did end up writing letters to the Federal Trade Commission to demand an investigation of Herbalife.
And the FTC opened a probe into the company just this month. Sheila Krumholz of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics says maybe you can't prove money is the reason Ackman got these results, but there's no question it set him apart on Capitol Hill.
SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: People who have deep pockets get special treatment. They get the kid gloves because parties and candidates want to be able to enlist their support, and count on them for financial support, in the future.
DEVON OSBORNE: Hi there. So we're checking in for the 10 o'clock meeting for Dialysis Patient Citizens.
CHANG: Meanwhile, people who don't have serious money often can't even get past the front couch of a lawmaker's office.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Do you want to take a seat? Maybe we'll circle up around here and...
OSBORNE: Our usual conference room here?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yeah, that'll work.
OSBORNE: OK. In the lobby.
CHANG: Devon Osborne is a dialysis patient from Dallas who got a meeting with two junior staffers in Texas Sen. John Cornyn's office. He's here with a group called Dialysis Patient Citizens, a client of Soapbox Consulting. Remember them? Osborne folds up his wheelchair, eases himself down with a cane and now has just 15 minutes to make the case for better Medicare coverage of kidney dialysis.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And Laura(ph) might have to leave a few minutes early, but I'll be here the whole time. Great, great.
CHANG: It was an ordeal for Osborne to come to Capitol Hill. It meant flying in early to get into a dialysis center at 4:00 in the morning. Still, he says, these precious 15 minutes even with a junior staffer are worth the effort.
OSBORNE: It's chipping at the iceberg. You know, this is the second or third time I've met with her, and each time it gets a little bit more familiar, and we get our point across each time.
CHANG: This is actually Osborne's fourth trip to the Hill overall and he says he has yet to land a face-to-face meeting with his own local congressman. Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol.
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