Congressional Advocacy 101
How to Educate Your Lawmaker for Beginners!
For 15 years I have walked the halls of Congress. I did not take a class or even receive any helpful tips before embarking on this endeavor, but over time I acquired valuable experience on the protocol and inner workings of Congress. Looking back, it certainly would have been helpful if there had been a guidebook like “What to Expect When Meeting with a Congressional Member or Staffer” or “Capitol Hill for Dummies.” Time is of the essence for all Gold Star Wives members to start their advocacy, so rather than writing a book I will share my experience with you in this article.
We elect our Senators and Representatives and in turn, they should consider our points of view when they vote in Congress. They are very powerful people who are responsible for changing the law and as their constituents, we can help influence how they vote to support or oppose a law. In addition to their role on the Hill, members meet often in their local offices allowing them to connect with their constituents and to listen to their views or learn about their issues. Congressional members hail from all walks of life and prior to their prestigious role in Congress, they had “real jobs” like you and I-- auctioneers, lawyers, schoolteachers, real estate agents, even practicing physicians. My experience on the Hill afforded me the opportunity to get to know them. I speak highly of their kindness and congeniality. They are willing to listen and help but will need facts and a good educator; that’s YOU!
How to Get Started
Meet with your members of Congress, State Representatives, or their staffers. Make an appointment at their local office or take a trip to DC. For most members of congress, their days are packed with meetings, hearings, and voting. Don’t be offended if you are scheduled to meet with their staffer instead of the member directly. Staffers have a significant influence in the modern Congress and serve as the eyes, and ears of the member. Also, most members of congress have multiple staff members and many times, each staffer is assigned a different area of focus. For example, most offices have one staffer that handles only healthcare issues.
How to “Make Your Case”
When talking with a staffer and making your pitch, try to speak in layman’s terms and remember that they must turn around and share the issue or view with their supervisor or the member. If the issue is too complicated or hard to explain, they may not endorse the issue. Keep it as simple as possible and share top line talking points for them to share with the member.
Although members of Congress were at one time just like us—they are now in a different role. They are public figures, in the press, or on TV. They are not bashful so keep their egos in mind. Let having them support our issues also be about them (Gibson 2010). Let them see how the outcome of supporting our issue would positively impact not only their constituents but would be good for a press release especially if they are up for re-election. If they supported other military survivor and veteran bills in the past, thank them for their support.
Serve as a Resource/Issue Expert
It is also helpful to offer to serve as a resource for members and their staff pertaining to military survivors’ issues. Share with them details about how these issues impact our military surviving spouse’s community or about some of the issues that you may deal with on a day-to-day especially pertaining to your optimal well-being. Make it personal.
Let them know that you stand ready to offer any input or feedback on any other issues having to do with military or veterans’ issues. This lets them know that you perceive the relationship as a “two-way street.” This ensures that if another issue arises that concerns surviving spouses and their families, they are more likely to reach out to gain the perspective of a trusted constituent.
How does this help our Gold Star Wives members?
As a veteran service organization, we want the best for our active duty servicemembers, retires, their families including their survivors. In order to improve and or change existing legislation, we need the help of Congress to amend a proposed law or create a bill to change the law. The common goal for changing legislation is to help improve our military surviving benefits to include Gold Star children’s benefits.
Educating congress raises awareness of the Gold Star Wives of America (GSW) organization, their legislative priorities, and the good GSW does to help improve the quality of life for thousands. Meeting with your elected official (Representative, Senator) or their staff members can be a very rewarding and exhilarating experience, knowing that you are exercising your civic duty. Get involved today and help improve the quality of lives for millions!
Although many of our bills have significant bipartisan support, more bills are needed! Please reach out today—call or email-- to your Representative and Senators to let them know why you support a bill and what it is needed for support. Moreover, to ask for a bill to be introduced by your member of Congress pertaining to your issue. Follow us on Arlington Gold Star Wives Facebook or our webpage to stay informed. Send a message to your elected official today-get connected!
Dr. Vivianne Wersel
President Arlington Gold Star Wives
Citation: Gibson, J. (2010) Persuading Congress. Alexandria, VA: TheCapito.Net, Inc.
SBP/ DIC History
DIC: Congress has created programs for survivors of our military members. In 1956, the Dependency Indemnity Compensation (DIC) was established by the Servicemen’s and Veterans Survivor Benefit Act. David F. Burrelli ,Specialist in National Defense, stated in the CRS report for Congress (2006) “Under this Act, as amended, DIC is paid to the survivors … of servicemen or veterans who died on or after January 1, 1957, from: (1) a disease or injury incurred or aggravated in line of duty while on active duty or active duty training; or (2) an injury incurred or aggravated in line of duty while on inactive duty training; or (3) a disability compensable under laws administered by the VA.”
SBP: In 1972, Congress created the Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP) (Burrelli 2006). The SBP (paid by DoD) is a voluntary insurance program established to provide surviving spouses of retirement-eligible military personnel an income proportional to the members retired pay (SBP is an amount up to 55% of the retiree’s base pay.
Stated simply, DIC is an indemnity payable to survivors when a military member dies as a result of a service connected because. SBP, created in 1972, is an annuity paid to a military member’s survivor to ensure that a portion of the military member’s retirement pay will be provided to the surviving spouse after the military member’s death. These are two different survivor programs and paid for two very different purposes.
When a service member (who is alive) is determined 50% or more disabled by the VA, they can receive their VA disability payment and their military retirement, separate, no offset. This is called CONCURRENT RECEIPT; receiving both VA and DoD compensation/ retirement. Our deceased spouses are deemed 100 % disabled, per the VA, yet the concurrent receipt policy is not honored once the service member dies. This is their benefit they earned for the loved ones.
As the result of the National Defense Authorization Act Fiscal Year 2008, Congress has established a Special Survivor Indemnity Allowance (SSIA) for surviving spouses who are the beneficiary of the Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP) annuity and their SBP annuity is partially or fully offset by the Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC). SSIA also applies to the surviving spouses of members who died on active duty whose SBP annuity is partially or fully offset by their DIC. For more information see our SSIA page.
Surviving spouses whose SBP annuity is suspended due to remarriage prior to age 55 are not eligible for SSIA during the suspension. If the surviving spouse regains eligibility for SBP and DIC, they will also regain eligibility for SSIA. The SBP annuity for children is not offset by DIC, so child SBP beneficiaries are not authorized SSIA.
Surviving spouses whose SBP annuity is fully or partially offset by DIC are not required to apply for SSIA. The Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS) will automatically pay SSIA to surviving spouses whose SBP accounts show a DIC offset of their spouse SBP annuity for months starting in October. However, if you never applied for the SBP annuity, DFAS will not have an account to identify you as an SBP beneficiary eligible for payment of SSIA. If you need to apply for SBP, contact your Retirement Services Office: