Briefings enable Congress to exercise its oversight functions by providing access to detailed, up-to-date information about specific world events or situations and the U.S. response. When committee chairs are unwilling to schedule hearings on a topic, caucuses or ad-hoc groups of members may be able to organize briefings instead. Social and informational gatherings and events on Capitol Hill are an excellent way to build relationships across party lines, broaden awareness of an issue, recognize milestone achievements, and find new allies in a low-pressure environment.
Briefings may be: conducted for staff or members (or both); limited to leadership or to members of a particular committee; open or closed to the public; and arranged at the request of Congress, the administration, or an outside organization. Hill events also include brown bag lunches, receptions, art exhibits, musical performances, film screenings, roundtable discussions, symposia, training sessions, and volunteer activities.
- Briefings should be bipartisan, held at a time that is convenient for representatives of both parties, and scheduled with at least one week’s notice (other than in emergencies).
- As a common courtesy, those requesting the briefing should let the briefers know who is likely to attend and what types of questions are expected.
- Increase attendance at a staff briefing or event by having a member make opening remarks.
- Boost the profile of a briefing or event by featuring a celebrity – and inviting the press.
- Ask for joint briefings by two or more bureaus, departments or agencies. It will help you in understanding their different perspectives and might force them to work together more effectively.
- Personalities matter! Invite briefers who will give honest and substantive answers, rather than reading from prepared talking points. However, protocol for government requests is to request the presence of specific offices, rather than specific individuals.
- When requesting briefings, be specific about whether you are seeking information about policies or about programs. The agencies, bureaus, and offices that set policy are often not the ones that carry out the programs.
- Calling a briefing can be helpful even if you don’t get the answers you are seeking. The State Department interprets requests for briefings as an expression of congressional interest or concern and may tread more carefully in these areas.
- Official briefings from the administration are usually more impactful than letters to the administration. Briefings require a far greater degree of preparation and coordination than letters.
- Work with relevant civil society organizations to spread the word about your event and help with the planning.
- Invite administration representatives to your Hill events. This is an excellent way to build relationships and expose executive branch officials to opinions and information they might not otherwise receive.
- Have a copy of your relevant sign-on letter, bill, or resolution available at the event, so that people leave knowing what they can do to address the problem.
- Briefing by Drone Strike Survivors. A briefing organized by Rep. Alan Grayson in 2013 featured a Pakistani schoolteacher and his two children, who had witnessed a missile hitting a field near their home in North Waziristan. The schoolteacher’s 65-year old mother, a grandmother of nine, was killed in the attack, and his two children were injured. This was said to be the first time Congress heard directly from survivors of an alleged U.S. drone strike. Although few members attended, the poignant testimony of a boy who said he now fears blue skies – the days when drones fly – was quite memorable and received substantial media attention.
- Using Film as an Organizing Tool. A staffer was so moved by a documentary he saw about life in a refugee camp that he invited the filmmaker to meet with his boss, who was so impressed that he hosted a Hill screening. The production company and a refugee organization helped to organize and publicize the screening, which was followed by a panel discussion and a reception. Through this event, the staffer identified partners and built relationships for future legislative action.
- Gathering Co-Sponsors for Legislation. Randy Hultgren and Jim McGovern, co-chairs of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, attended a briefing in February 2017 in honor of “Red Hand Day” – an international day of awareness-raising about child soldiering. Lt. General (ret.) Romeo Dallaire, who led the UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda between 1993 and 1994, and tried to stop the Rwandan genocide, spoke movingly about the horrors and prevalence of children being pressed into combat around the world. Rep. Chris Smith’s staff had legislation ready to introduce to close loopholes in existing U.S. law regarding military aid to forces that use children in combat. The staffer spoke up at this briefing and both members present came on as original co-sponsors when the bill (H.R. 1191) was introduced the next day.