A Simple Tool to Up Your Policy Game

A Calendar of Livestock Parasites.
The perfect holiday gift for anyone on your list. Source.

Our lives have many different kinds of calendars. The calendar of months and four seasons, the school calendar (I still find myself talking about autumn as the fall semester), the calendar of Q1 and Q2 and..., the calendar of planting tomatoes and picking asters, the calendar of the fiscal year and the calendar of the, well, calendar year.

And so into that great tangle of dates, let me add one more: the legislative calendar. Because in legislatures, the calendar is King, Queen, Princess, Earl, and Viscountess.

The calendar – which in state legislatures and Congress is set by majority party leadership – determines when the legislature is in session, and most importantly for our purposes, when to reach out to legislators.

Step 1 to Up Our Policy Game: Find out when our state legislature is/isn't in session. (It's usually on their Wikipedia page.)

Let's start with the brass tacks. Most state legislatures (44, for those following along at home) are part-time, so there are months - sometimes a great many months - when they aren't in session.

Up here in Maine, the legislature is in from January to June odd-numbered years (notably, the year after an election) and January to April even-numbered years (election years; a shorter session also gives members more time to campaign). Over in Montana, they're in for 90 days every odd-numbered year. The Oregon Legislature convenes every February for 35 days in even-numbered years and 160 days in odd-numbered years. Here's a nifty map showing which state's are/aren't in session this year.

Most state legislatures tend to be the quietest at the start of a legislative session and the busiest at the end of session. Tough bills are often punted until the last minute (wait, legislators kicking the can down the road? Well I never). Deadlines, like a legislative session ending or a government shutdown, are action forcers on knotty issues.

A very fine time to contact state legislators is early in session when they have the lightest work load or when they aren't in session. (More on how to reach out here!) A really tough time to reach out is towards the end of session when things are banana-pants.

If you don't hear back right away, give it a week or two. Part-time legislatures have part-time legislators, many of whom have other jobs to pay the bills (find out how much your state legislators make here; spoiler: not much). They also often share legislative aides with other members, so if your request requires some staff research, that could take a little bit.

Step 2 to Up Our Policy Game: Bookmark this combined House and Senate 2024 calendar.

Now Congress is a full-time legislature (which, as I suspect you have intuited, does not necessarily mean full-time productivity). So we have more time on the calendar to reach out to them.

Congressional calendars (more on why that's plural in a moment) have two settings: sessions days when members are in D.C. and recess, when they're back in the district. Recess has been rebranded to District Work Period. And a rose by any other name...

D.C. staff have a lighter calendar when the boss is back home, so recess is prime time to drop a line. If we have a policy issue (instead of casework - i.e. individual help on passports, Social Security, veteran's benefits, etc. - which is usually handled out of the district office), call the Washington, D.C. office and ask for the name of the staffer who handles your issue. (You can also nose around online, but it's sometimes just faster and more accurate to make an old-fashioned phone call.)

House email format is firstname.lastname@mail.house.gov
Senate format is firstname_lastname@senatorslastname.senate.gov

Congress being Congress, the two chambers are not always in session/out of session at the same time. Leadership can also change the calendars if they are so inclined; an often-used leadership calendar strategy is to threaten to keep members in D.C. over the winter holidays or through the August recess unless bills are voted on.

For the latest calendars, check House Majority Leader Steve Scalise's website or the Senate's website.

Step 3 to Up Our Policy Game: Learn your town council's meeting cadence.

Town/city council calendars can really cover the waterfront. My town has council meetings every other week, so my approach is to reach out during a week they don't have a meeting.

You may have to go deep into the bowels of your town's website to find the council schedule. Before we start decrying that they don't want the public at their meetings and democracy dies in darkness, I don't think that's the case here. Government has never been on the bleeding edge of user interface (Exhibit A: the Healthcare.gov trainwreck of a rollout - and that was a new website).

Most municipalities have archaic websites that make Ask Jeeves look mod. Add in overworked communications staff who have no choice but to layer onto a crummy site and you end up with a super clunky user interface.

But take heart: the more time you spend on the website, the more you learn how to navigate it like an ace. And when you next need to find something, it'll be a cinch.

Everything we do with a legislator signals if they can trust us or not. Nailing the timing on our first contact with them is a win outta the gates: it shows politicians (or their staff) that we get the calendar they exist in. The more they trust us, the more likely they are to pay careful attention to the causes we care about.

If real estate's cardinal rule is location, location, location, legislatures' is timing, timing, timing. And when we understand the power of the calendar, we can use that power in service of building the world we want to live in.

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