Participants in APTA’s Legislative Conference heard from Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-MD) and Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), as well as “advocacy guru” Stephanie Vance, at the March 13 “Get Started with Members of Congress” General Session.
Cummings captivated the audience from his opening words: “It was a bus ...” He explained: “It was a bus that took my mother at 5 a.m. as a domestic to go out into the suburbs of Baltimore. It was a bus that allowed my father to get to work and take care of his family. It was a bus that took my neighbors from place to place because, in my whole block of 35 houses, there was only one car.
“It was a bus that took a young boy who was trying to pull himself up by his bootstraps to get from a poor school to a great school. It was a bus that allowed me to make that journey. It was bus drivers who greeted me with a smile, who were a constant in my life, and said: ‘Get yourself an education.’ And it was a bus driver who showed up for my graduation.
“So I come by here to thank all of you,” Cummings said, adding: “That’s why it’s so important that you be on the Hill today. There are people depending on you—they have no other way. If they cannot move, they cannot progress.”
The congressman from Baltimore noted that the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee used to be the most bipartisan one in Congress, but “now, sadly, it has become one of the most divided.”
Further, he said, the discord extends beyond the committee: “The House is so divided that they do not appear to have the votes to pass this terrible bill [H.R. 7].” He cited a headline from The Hill that read: “Speaker Boehner’s Bill is on Life Support.”
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Cummings said, “it is time to pull the plug.”
He stressed that the legislative reality is “we have a long, hard fight ahead to ensure our transit doors stay open.”
He quoted former Transportation Secretary Rodney E. Slater, who said: “Transportation is about more than concrete, asphalt, and steel. It’s about meeting the needs of the American people.”
Cummings emphasized that public transit is not just about the “now,” but also about “people who will be born 30-40 years from now.” He stated: “I will always be on your side—and on the side of millions of public transit riders in this nation.”
He closed by saying: “It’s nice to come and tell us ‘thank you’—but don’t spend a lot of time with us: we’re already on your side. Send us a note, spend five minutes with us, then go to the other side of the aisle and ask someone who doesn’t agree with you: why aren’t you supporting transit? Don’t be shy,” he advised, adding, “just do it.”
Norton—introduced as “one of our foremost allies in the House” by Mort Downey, president, Mort Downey Consulting, and board member, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority—did not hold back in her perspective on the status of public transportation in Congress.
“I’ll try to give you some sense of the political situation that I hope you can pierce,” she began. The issue is, she said, whether the members of the House will complete any surface transportation bill this year: “My prediction is there will be an extension.”
Norton continued: “The truest sign of a dysfunctional House is when you can’t pass a transportation bill. It’s formula driven: every district gets what it wants and needs.” She questioned why (and how) a bill could be constructed that has received opposition “from labor leaders to the Club for Growth. If that range and everything in between opposes it, why would you come forth with this?”
The Senate bill then under consideration, she noted, is not what everyone might want, “but it’s probably the only bill you’re going to get.”
Norton pointed out that, while people are going back to public transportation, “you have a Congress that is not listening.” She stressed: “I do call upon you to understand—these are very different members. This is a House in need of expertise, but I warn you … the problem is not money.”
She closed by urging the audience: “Make them produce some bill. Tell them: Pass a transportation bill in 2012 before you go home!”
The session opened with Vance, with Advocacy Advocates LLC, who presented an energized primer on what to say and what not to say to members of Congress and their staffs when advocating for investment in public transportation. As APTA members prepared to visit Capitol Hill that afternoon, Vance provided a variety of suggestions on how to be effective and compelling in conveying their message.
Noting that it had been 895 days since the expiration of SAFETEA-LU, she told the audience: “Right now is the perfect time to be here.” She urged APTA members to tell their local stories and tie their messages to what is in their member’s specific interests. In addition, she said, “Be specific on where your system interacts with their districts. And thank them.”
Among her many additional tips and techniques:
* Make an appointment. Promise: “I’ll only take 15 minutes of your time.”
* Don’t underestimate staff.
* Don’t leave behind volumes of materials; a couple of pages are sufficient.
* Don’t bring a lot of people; Hill offices are small. Offer to follow the very busy member to wherever he or she is going. Don’t be offended if the meeting takes place in the hallway.
* Be specific on what you are asking for. For example, she said: “Will you support a multimodal, multi-year transportation bill?”
* Be persistent. When you return home, follow up.
* Set up local events such as town hall meetings to create momentum.
Vance also offered some tips on what not to do, including saying: “No, I don’t represent your district. Is it nice there?”
In closing, she offered a light-hearted admonition: “Remember this—do not embarrass me.”
Kathy Golden also contributed to this story.