The Grossman Lab Advocates for Agricultural Research on Capitol Hill: Lobbying Demystified
Author: Sharon Perrone
Have you ever wondered what it’s like to ask Congress for $700 million—and say it with a straight face?
Over my spring break, I traveled to Washington, D.C. and did just that. Thanks to the Agronomy, Crop, and Soil Science Societies of America (the Tri-Societies), I was awarded the opportunity to participate in a workshop on Congressional advocacy followed by a full day of lobbying, an event called “Congressional Visits Day,” or CVD. In the nation’s balmy capital, I joined about two dozen students and 40 ag professionals, including academics, organizational leaders, industry representatives, and certified crop advisors to learn how to advocate for our research.
Amidst the brightly budding cherry blossoms, we spent the first day learning about the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, or AFRI, for which we’d be asking for Federal support. Established by the 2008 Farm Bill, AFRI is the nation’s peer-reviewed competitive grants program for agricultural science (the ag equivalent of an NIH grant). While last year’s budget was a “meager” $350 million, the President requested $700 million in funding, the fully authorized amount by Congress in 2008, for the 2017 fiscal year. After the President makes his request, every U.S. Senator and Representative must send a budget request letter to the Appropriations Committee. After about 6 months of deliberation, the Committee will submit their budget for a vote to fund the next year of government in September. Our goal was to make sure AFRI was included in those request letters at the fully authorized amount.
The following day, the Tri-Societies sent 17 teams to Capitol Hill to bring our request to 121 Congressional offices (i.e., Senators and Representatives). My team handled six offices representing South Dakota and Minnesota. I was accompanied by Paul Fixen, current president of ASA; Thom Weir, Vice Chair of the International Certified Crop Advisor program; and David Clay, soil science professor at South Dakota State University. Appropriations letters were due that very week, and the Hill was full of folks from every interest and discipline requesting last-minute Appropriations support, like ourselves. The energy was palpable!
Although I knew what to expect (I’d participated in a few of these types of meetings at my previous job in D.C.), I was nervous! As the only Minnesota constituent, I was tasked to lead the four Minnesota meetings that we attended. But our tactical team played our hand well, and I was accompanied by experts: I spoke about the broad overall importance and implications of agricultural research, and the direct impact AFRI has at the U of M, which receives AFRI grant money; David spoke more specifically of the types of problems that AFRI is helping solve; Thom translated the research to boots-on-the-ground outreach; and Paul spoke about missed opportunities for innovation and global impacts.
Our team was lucky to visit states where agricultural is a critical industry, so our Senators and Representatives were very supportive. One office had already submitted their request in our favor! Overall, the whole democratic process was demystified. While I thought the issues important to me might be brushed aside, I learned that my legislators were very interested to hear from me and asked me detailed questions about my concerns and thoughts for solutions. I was asked if I might be a resource for future questions on agricultural issues. I have gained confidence in my ability to communicate the critical need for my work, and I won’t be nervous to do it again in the future.
The main takeaway from my experience is this: Congress wants to hear from YOU, the constituent. It is their job to represent you. If you can’t make it to Washington, D.C. (or even your state legislature!), you can easily send an email or pick up the phone to voice the issues that are important to you. Remember, you are your own best advocate. No one can speak to your issues and expertise the way you can. Too often we assume that someone else is already speaking on our behalf. What better way to know your voice is being heard than to speak?