Practical tips for working with committee staff

The California state Capitol in Sacramento. (Photo: Karin Hildebrand Lau, via Shutterstock)

ANALYSIS – In talking with committee staff the past few weeks, there are some practical tips that were shared with me for those working with the staff of the policy and fiscal committees in the California Legislature. While some of these recommendations may seem obvious, many of them bear repeating.

The following are some of the many suggestions shared with me these past few weeks:

Policy and Fiscal Committees

  • Timing is important. Make sure you talk with the consultant prior to them finishing their analysis for a bill, which is usually at least one week prior to the bill’s scheduled hearing.
  • Hearing from an advocate just days before a bill’s scheduled committee hearing does not leave much opportunity for the consultant to address any concerns or proposed amendments.
  • As Assembly and Senate committees have different deadlines and rules, be sure to check in with individual committees to know what deadlines apply for letters and amendments.
  • Always submit position letters to the committee on time. Many committees now list on their webpage the dates of their scheduled hearings along with the corresponding deadline for submission of bill letters for those scheduled hearings.
  • Make sure the author gets a copy of your submitted letter, including the staff member handling the particular bill.
  • State clearly your position on the bill letter, definitely in the letter’s subject line. There are basically four most common positions, which are reflected in the legislative portal system: support, oppose, support if amended, or oppose unless amended.
  • Ask directly for your suggested amendments, and explain clearly why the amendments are necessary.
  • Coordinate your testimony with colleagues for the hearing, as much as is possible.
  • If you are calling in to a committee hearing with a “me too” position, please pay attention to the Chair and Moderator’s instructions. Generally, your name, organization represented, and position on the bill are all that are necessary, or wanted.
  • Keep committee consultants “in the loop” on amendment discussions and other actions or information that may affect the bill and committee hearing.
  • Don’t go to the Chair first on a bill, whether in support or opposition. Go first to the author’s office, then the committee staff, and then to the Members.
  • Don’t bring problems without solutions, if possible.
  • Kindness goes a long way when dealing with committee staff, which means BOTH the consultant and the secretary or assistant.
  • Return phone calls and emails from committee staff promptly. There are some lobbyists who have a bad habit of either not responding or responding after it is too late to be helpful. When committee staff reach out to you on a bill, they are doing so for a reason and are usually under time constraints.
  • Provide materials in an easy-to-use format, such as a Word document.
  • Talk to committee staff about the problem you are trying to solve for your clients. Sometimes, legislation is not always the best approach.
  • It can be helpful to let committee staff know the bills that you are shopping and your potential authors. Staff can occasionally help with finding the appropriate author.
  • Don’t wait until the gut and amend deadline to surface your priority proposals. It will not be well received by committee staff.
  • Avoid jamming committee staff with late author amendments. In other words, just because the deadline for amendments is 2 weeks before the hearing, the sooner you get the committee staff those amendments is always better – for you, your author, and the bill.
  • Try to communicate your issues on bills that your client does not like as soon as possible, even if you don’t have a formal position on the bill yet.
  • If you gut and amend a bill in the second house, be sure to involve (at the very least, notify) the other house’s committee of your amendments and negotiations on the bill.
  • It may be helpful to meet with committee staff at the beginning of the year to discuss the upcoming session and policy interests, as well as your client priorities.
  • Don’t forget to share your advocacy letters and support materials, as well as proposed amendments, with the relevant Assembly Republican Caucus consultant and Senate Republican Caucus consultant.
  • Always identify the client you are engaging on behalf of with committee staff. And be clear what you are asking for.
  • Put your letter in the portal. Committee staff do review them. After your letter is in the portal, you don’t need more communications unless there are updates because the bill language changed, or you have a change in position.
  • As a general rule, always start the meeting off with what your ask is so staff don’t have to figure it out while you’re talking. Put all the cards on the table and have honest discussions.
  • If you have amendments that will make your position change to neutral or even remove your opposition, then be very specific and clear about what those amendments are.
  • If you are a bill sponsor and the committee is suggesting amendments to the bill, realize that they are doing that to help you keep your bill moving through the process.
  • If the Governor’s Office is suggesting amendments, they are not likely suggestions. 😊
  • Pay attention to referrals as many bills are double referred and some bills keyed non-fiscal get pulled into the Senate Appropriations Committee.
  • If you get a sense that committee staff is good with a bill you are in support or sponsoring, then try to keep any meeting small and short unless they need follow-up.
  • Do not try to go around the committee staff by talking to the Chair’s staff.  A good office won’t do that anyway and the consultant will never trust you. There is a difference between talking to the Chari’s staff and trying to undermine the committee staff.
  • Be straightforward about a bill’s strengths and weaknesses. No bill is perfect, and consultants understand that any bill comes with trade-offs. Avoid puffery or excessive doom-and-gloom statements.
  • Don’t try to hide the backstory on your bill. For example, if a legislative proposal comes from an executive branch action or a lawsuit, disclose that fact. These facts always come out and, if they don’t come from you, you will lose credibility with committee staff.
  • Don’t call or e-mail the committee to ask questions that can be answered by a quick glance at the Daily File or the committee’s website.
  • Be judicious with your meeting requests, especially during the busiest part of the year.
  • Understand that consultants compare notes with each other. And, committee consultants and the Chair’s personal staff also compare notes with each other. It always works better to provide the same information to everyone upfront to avoid any confusion or agitation.
  • It really does work to touch base with committees over the fall or before a bill is introduced, especially for a proposal that is dense and has a lot of moving parts. A confused consultant can throw wrenches into the bill’s progress.
  • If you happen to have a staffer’s phone number, don’t abuse the privilege.
  • Be respectful and responsive to committee questions
  • Treat everyone in the legislative process with respect.
  • Above all else, be honest.
  • This one’s from me: Respect the institution, and respect the process.

Budget Committee

  • Read the Governor’s proposed budget change proposals (BCPs) in the issue areas you care about very soon after their release, and then contact the relevant budget committee staff (including the relevant Republican Caucus staff) in order to weigh in on the BCP early.
  • Don’t make staff guess your group’s thoughts on a budget proposal. Submit your position or thoughts to the staff prior to budget pre-hearing meetings with administration staff. These are typically two weeks before a budget subcommittee hearing.  This allows budget committee staff to possibly raise concerns
  • Read the draft trailer bill language when it gets posted on the Department of Finance website and submit your comments or concerns as soon as possible, just like the other budget proposals.
  • Be prepared for when the various pieces of trailer bill language get added to a budget spot or intent measure in order for your organization’s support/oppose/concerns letter can be added to that specific bill’s record in the very brief 72 hours before the bill is voted on during a floor session.
  • If your client’s position is important, be available to testify at the budget hearing that may take place at some point within the 72-hour window.
  • For a budget request for your organization, it is recommended to secure a sponsor for your budget request so that he or she can “work the proposal” on the inside (like a bill).

Fiscal Committees

  • Try to keep any letters to the Appropriations Committee staff (and the relevant Republican Caucus staff) to the state government fiscal impact of the bill. That really is what an Appropriations consultant is writing about in his or her analysis.
  • Try to get such letters to the committee prior to the week when the bill is being analyzed for the Appropriations hearing. Typically, this deadline is a week BEFORE the bill is heard in the Appropriations Committee. This applies to all bills, even those that will go on suspense.
  • When a bill is on suspense and, if applicable, suggest amendments to the Appropriations Committee staff to improve the administrative implementation of the bill. It is undoubtedly better to handle this while the bill is on suspense, rather than during the last week of session.

Chris Micheli, an attorney and adjunct professor at McGeorge School of Law, is a founder of the Sacramento lobbying firm Aprea & Micheli.


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