Lobbying for Change Requires a Willingness to Listen
Kevin R. Carriere, Washington & Jefferson College
If you’re going to show your students how the sausage gets made, don’t be surprised if some become vegetarian.
Funded in part through the Action Teaching Grant, my Psychology of Public Policy class went to Capitol Hill this past semester to lobby their Representative. The trip was simple – seven students would lobby their Representative Guy Reschenthaler using psychological science, and another class of thirteen would also travel but not lobby. We collected data on the student’s political self-efficacy and other similar measures both at the beginning of the semester and after the trip concluded, with plans of writing it up.
The students researched three different bills – The Equality Act (H.R. 5), The Menstrual Equity For All Act of 2021 (H.R. 3614), and The Fair Proceedings Act (S. 901). Armed with psychological science, each group had a different strategy for their lobbying efforts. For H.R. 5, students asked Congressman Reschenthaler to reconsider his no vote in the future, calling on his strong advocacy for mental health and noting the psychological consequences of discrimination. For H.R. 3614, students asked him to co-sponsor the legislation, highlighting the link between period poverty and truancy, given the Congressman’s concerns over school absences during the pandemic. The S. 901 group asked for sister legislation in the House, arguing that increasing procedural justice in immigration courts would promote safer and more ‘legal’ border crossings.
With a small sample, we are cautious (and have yet) to interpret results, but qualitative comments would suggest we may find a non-significant decrease in efficacy from lobbying. The staffer took our meeting in a cafeteria. As such, students were grouped together - all hearing the same canned response of being thanked for bringing that matter to their attention. They noted that the staffer barely wrote anything down except for toxic shock syndrome, which we can hope he later researched. They left feeling that their words were dismissed; their efforts discounted.
This is the second time I’ve had my students lobby, and again I am left with mixed feelings. The students were shocked at the young age of the staffers – and in that way, seemed empowered in their own impacts. At the same time, they clearly were dejected, sensing that because their issues fell outside of party-line considerations of our Representative, the staff had no interest in taking their recommendation seriously. While I would hate to party-shop my students’ efforts, it may be better for others to target those whose values line up more overtly with the students’ bills. Being from Pennsylvania, we could have, and probably will, simply turn our attention towards the Senate in future years.
Still, they gained a lot. We went to a subcommittee hearing on mental health in transitioning to college (Thank you Senator Casey’s staff!). We got to tour the Capitol, visit the Smithsonian, and took photos outside of the Supreme Court. And, if anything, they were defiant in not being taken seriously – and I worry for the next staffer who gets in their way.