Picture of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C.

Working with Congress

In Execution, Strategy Insights, Anecdotes by Steve Sliwa

In business leadership situations, one frequently needs to work with people in Washington, D.C. Some legislative issues come up, generally related to the authorization committee or earmarks. On the one hand, you wish that you didn’t have to deal with all that stuff, but sometimes, it has to happen to achieve the best possible results for your stakeholders.

In the course of doing that, I’ve learned some tricks that I want to share. In general, it’s a little frustrating that the process has influence factors not directly related to the problem at hand, but that’s the nature of the beast when working with Congress. Before I experienced this process, I was a bit naive and thought that things were more based on merit, as opposed to relationships, like everything else. So, it’s essential to understand the connections and processes within this system.

Lobbying Congress

Members of Congress are very busy, so when you work with their offices, one typically deals with their staff. Occasionally, something is so crucial that you have to involve the member, but most of the time, it is working with the staff to get the language you want into a bill or get their consideration on some rule or action. Staff members take that forward, and if needed, get it blessed by the member.

Working with numerous people over the years, I’ve noticed three vital behaviors. I’m not advocating that you follow my advice, but this is what I’ve observed and experienced when effectively working with Congress.

Model for Being Successful with Staffers

  1. Limited Resources, Unlimited Work

Each Representative, Senator, and Committee has a limited number of staff members, which varies according to the year and by the population of the state they represent. Suffice it to say that the support staff is limited. Because of all the activities and pages being put into the federal register, it’s hard for the staffers to complete all the work. 

To overcome this hurdle, one must help them do their job. Because if you can help them, then they are more likely to find ways to work with you. In fact, a person often drafts the bills for them, doing the background research indicating who – whether other members or constituencies – is going to be concerned about aspects of the bills. This, however, has the benefit that you can introduce language that might be beneficial to your clients or yourself. In a nutshell, helping staff complete their job is key.

  1. Help the Boss Stay in Power

All Congressional members and staff are on the verge of losing their jobs. Representatives are up for reelection every two years and Senators every six. If their boss loses their job, then so does the staffer. I find that demonstrating that you are genuinely concerned about them keeping their job goes a long way. But how do you do this? Fundraising.

I know it’s not supposed to be this way, i.e., pay to play, but if you aren’t in the game with a fundraising event that makes at least $10K, then honestly, it’s going to be hard to have success with the staffer or member regarding your ideas. Note, that amount was the number in my day. I’ve also noticed that lobbyists constantly tell staffers things like, “By the way, you might not know this, but we’re hosting a breakfast event for your boss next week to speak on his/her views related to the upcoming authorization bill.” The implicit implication is that it would be a fundraiser. That’s the norm because they want to see that you’re interested in keeping them in the game. If you are, then you are more likely to have a dialogue and conversation when you go into their office.

  1. Future Employment

Members aren’t paid that much, but staffers are paid even less. At some point, they will have children who need to go to college or want to buy a house. When meeting with staffers, there’s an innuendo of, “When are you going to blow this rat race and come over to our side? Make some real money!” Of course, it’s not worded quite that way, but it’s implied. The idea being, “With your talent and background, if you ever decide to jump ship and come over to the lobbyist’s side, I hope you’d consider working for us.”

In my opinion from watching this from the outside, if you are planting those seeds, it’s hard for the staffer to say that they are too busy and tell you to leave. Honestly, it’s like they are in a constant job interview, but it’s the way the system works. To be effective, understand that you have to help staffers complete their work, keep the boss in power, and let them know you support them now and in the future.

Learning from Mistakes

One time, I went to a meeting with someone to talk about the rules and regulations related to drones, and they shared some language with me. For some reason, I had it in my mind that this language was proposed by a particular office in the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that was trying to slow down drone development and retain power. The wording was remarkably similar, and I thought it had been drafted by the FAA and shared with them. When they gave me the bill, I pushed back and said that I didn’t like it for this and that and this section could be improved, but I thanked her for sharing it. After that, the meeting was pretty cool.

My lobbyist asked me what I thought of the meeting. I told him that I misread it and believed the language I panned was hers. And because of that, I lost her.

My Washington lobbyist went back and met with her. Sure enough, she had personally pulled the material together, probably from some FAA memos, and worked on the bill. She felt like it was a personal attack on her work. Unfortunately, we did lose the opportunity to work with her.

Interacting with Everyone

Another interesting story I experienced from walking the halls of Congress was one of my lobbyists telling me how one needs to interact with everyone and not only the members and staff. There are many employees in the buildings, including those running the elevators, security, and parking attendants.

My lobbyist made time for everyone. He talked to them, explained what was going on, and introduced them to his clients. He sometimes had me bring hats with me. Once when I was with him, we met up with a guard on the sidewalk. He asked him if he had ever met a university president. The man shook his head no. “Well, here’s one. His school is Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University down in Florida.” I handed him a hat and told him that he might know someone who would enjoy the hat. “Yeah, my grandson would really like this!”

We did this with guards, elevator attendants, train operators, staffers, and in the cafeteria. In the beginning, I never quite understood the full value of it. It was great to meet all these people, but it seemed less than focused on what I was trying to get done. 

Then one day, it was raining very hard in D.C., and I had several tight, back-to-back meetings that spanned different congressional office buildings and testifying in front of Congress. It was going to be hard to be on time for everything, especially with the gridlock due to the bad weather. My lobbyist wasn’t worried, “I think we’ll be okay because they like you. They don’t know many university presidents who’ve been talking to them. We’ll get it worked out.”

For example, he called the office building, “Hey, remember that university president I introduced you to?” “Yeah, he was a great guy.” “Well, we’re coming over for a meeting, and we’re tight on time. I was wondering if you could hold a spot for us.” “Sure, no problem.” When we arrived, we saw all these limos and black SUVs with members, staffers, cabinet officers, and CEOs trying to queue up and get into the building. We pulled right up front to the cones by the security guard. He waved and moved the cones. “We’ll be back in about 15 minutes.” “No problem. Take your time. Go right on in.”

When we finished, everyone else was madly rushing about, but our car was right there with cones around it. Why was that? Because we treated everyone in the building as important, from the members to all those who make the system work. When we needed a favor, it usually happened. I remember getting onto the member’s elevator and special trains when the schedule was tight, even though we weren’t supposed to. They made exceptions to the rules. “Don’t worry. We’ll take care of you.” That’s how it felt.

This is a great lesson even outside of Congress, but those experiences drove it home for me.


When one works with members, they are very busy and stretched in many different directions. They are always concerned about a political issue, some law, complications back in their home territory, reelection, or fundraising. Honestly, they are run ragged. A good lesson in my mind is to keep meetings short. Expect no more than 30 minutes, but try to finish in 10 to 15. That gives them time back, which the members and staffers are both grateful for. Then, they aren’t nervous about scheduling you for future events because they know you’ll be on the short side instead of the long. They dislike it when the schedule is messed up because once people start running late, it snowballs.

Personally, I always try to be respectful of time and make the most out of it. I’ve learned to leave a good sound bite. It has to be simple because you want them to be able to remember one thing coming out of the meeting. I typically make it around an anecdote, finishing in less than 15 minutes.

When a member came to visit my business, I usually coupled it with a fundraising event in the local area. My goal was to raise $10K for their campaign. I also made a point of arranging meetings so that they could talk for a bit and people would be impressed, have an opportunity to shake their hand, and make them feel good. It was important to make them look good in public so that they knew you were a good influence.

I also worked hard to create memories for them because they are deluged with this every day. What can you do that’s a little bit different to make you stand out? 

Congressman William Lehman

Congressman Lehman was already familiar with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University because he was a graduate and former employee. It so happened that I needed his help with an appropriation. I worked with him and his staff and tried to find ways to get him reconnected with the institution.

At one point in the process, we arranged for him to be awarded an honorary doctorate in front of many of his colleagues. At the ceremony, he received his diploma and sash and everything that goes along with it, but what he enjoyed the most was this hat that had “Dr. Bill” on it.

He was the chairman of one of the appropriations subcommittees. These chairmen are known as Cardinals and are very powerful, having much to say over how the money is distributed through the various districts. Once when I testified before his committee, he stood up, “Excuse me,” and left the room when I was in the middle of answering questions. It was rather odd, but the minority ranking member, who was from New York, took over and started taking me to town and asking negative questions about my project in a gruff manner.

Congressman Lehman returned, wearing his Dr. Bill hat. “Excuse me, will the ranking member yield.” “Yes, Mr. Chairman.” “Sorry, I had to step out for a moment to get my Dr. Bill hat. I’m really proud that I’m a graduate of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, and I also have an honorary doctorate from there.” 

He took off his hat and showed it to those in the room with a big smile. “I want to say that Dr. Sliwa here is one of the most impressive young men that I’ve met in the aviation industry, and I think we have a lot we could learn from him. I yield my time back to the ranking member from New York.” 

He smiled at me, and the Congressman from New York smiled at me, “I have no further questions for Dr. Sliwa. Thank you for joining our committee.”

This shows how a little token like a hat can stir memories. Of course, there were other things related to Congressman Lehman. We also presented his wife with a scrapbook to commemorate their earlier times at Embry-Riddle, which evoked tears from her. He was a critical part of a major appropriation that we did, but it was complicated and took a couple of years. To get it all the way through the system, Senator Ford had to help me.

Senator Wendell Ford

Senator Ford was the ranking Senator from Kentucky and incredibly important in the aviation industry and sector. He made enormous contributions in numerous areas related to the development of air transportation, but he was a little embarrassed by the fact that he didn’t graduate from college. He went but left to do other things. I heard that he had never even been to a graduation ceremony. Part of that was that he might have felt he didn’t belong there. To me, this was amazing because he was a truly remarkable person who did a lot for the aviation industry.

One of our lobbyists knew one of his former staffers. They told him about how inspiring he was to the aviation industry and that an address from him would motivate the younger generation. Finally, they convinced him to give a speech at Embry-Riddle’s graduation. His staff said that he had a limited amount of time, so we scheduled his talk early in the ceremony.

After the speeches, students came up one by one to receive their diplomas. There were 750 graduates and about 4,000 people in the audience. We offered him a chance to be in the reception line and shake the graduates’ hands.

After about 20 minutes, his staff came over and said that it was time to leave for his flight. “Book me another flight. I want to stay for the rest of the day.” He had so much fun talking to the students. He attended several events afterward and mentioned that this was one of the best times because he wasn’t trying to get votes or money. He was motivating the next generation of people who were going to be leaders in the aviation industry. He felt good about that and told me that if I ever needed anything to just let him know. After that experience, he participated in more college events back in his home state. We credited ourselves a little for getting him over the hump.

Two years later, I took him up on his offer. We asked for his help on the project that started with Congressman Lehman. “Absolutely.” And he took care of it. At the time, I didn’t know that I would need his help later, but it was good that he was there for us.

Congressman James Oberstar

In 1993, Congressman Oberstar was a guest speaker at Embry-Riddle’s Wright Anniversary event, celebrating 90 years since the first airplane flight. While he was on campus, he spoke with many students and faculty, which he found immensely beneficial. He had some real challenges in his role on the aviation authorization committee, so he enjoyed seeing the results of what his work produced and the impact it had on the students. It reminded him why he fought the battles and dealt with the challenges.

I remember taking him on a tour of the campus, and he really liked the area with the 3D printer. Embry-Riddle had one of the very first ones, so the technology was pretty exciting. At the time, the group was creating a Wright flyer, and he seemed intrigued.

That evening, we had a dinner, and he said how impressed he was with the university. He told his wife about the Wright flyer and how he wished he could get one someday. When he was in the campus lab, I noticed how much he liked it, so I had them make one for him and mount it on a plaque. Near the end of the meal, I thanked Congressman Oberstar for visiting and all his efforts. I also praised his work in investing in the future because it provided the foundation for the next generation of students. I pulled out the plaque and said that it was a gift from the students as a remembrance of his day at Embry-Riddle. He was beaming. Afterward, he gave me a really nice gift for the university with his signature. The next time I visited his office, the plaque was hanging on his wall.

Be There for Them

Creating memories makes it easy for people to follow through with you. But another critical component of work with members is being there for them.

I remember this one individual who was going to be the Chair of the Transportation Appropriations Committee, i.e., becoming a Cardinal. He was so busy working in Washington and had won his last election by a landslide that it didn’t occur to him that he might have trouble being reelected. He hadn’t worked on his campaign very much. With about a month to go, he found out that he was behind in the polls.

He was shocked and needed to return to his district and focus on his reelection. He reached out to people in Washington and asked them to come and help him finish the race. Five people showed up. One of whom was my lobbyist and consultant. He spent a month in that state as the Campaign Chair, raising money and getting through the election. It was a very tight race, but they won by a thousand votes.

In the future, my lobbyist had easy access to him when he needed to make things happen, such as advice on what needs to be done, who else to visit, or what checkboxes need to be completed for everyone to feel comfortable. He was available for us. He even took us to lunch in the Congressional dining room and talked to us about the best way to get our items approved and accepted.

Members are swamped, but if you can help them by either creating memories, help them be successful, or make them look good in public, then they will spend more time with you.

Testifying Before Congress

I’ve testified before Congress a few times, and my advice is to prepare a statement for the record before arriving. The first time, I was so nervous and scared that I just read it into the record. Everyone was trying to be polite, but it was awful. Congressman Oberstar was there, trying to listen to it. To this day, I still feel bad about that. I was happy to build rapport with him afterward so that he could see that I wasn’t robotic. In the subsequent times, I asked for it to be read into the record. They approved it, and then I brought up a couple of key points and created a dialog. I find this approach the most effective way for testifying. Come up with some good questions, prepare answers to some tough ones you might receive, and let your supporters help you get through it.

Congressional Earmarks

Earmarks are things that are specifically funded by Congress. They use a portion of the budget to finance projects. Frequently, they are accused of being Congressional pork and being inappropriate. But I don’t feel quite the same way. I think it’s a good idea to have a shakeup of the power elite. During my time in Washington, earmarks made up something like 1% of the discretionary budget (about 25% of the full budget). Each Congressman and Senator was asked to submit a list of earmarks for consideration by the full committee. I believe that many of these projects could create opportunities for entrepreneurial things to happen. If so, then I’m all for it. Yes, there might be some bad projects and bridges to nowhere, but it is a nice complement to the normal process.

The typical route involves either an unelected bureaucrat funding individual projects or using competitions to select tasks. My observation is that when the government is deciding topics to pursue, they create a panel of professors from the elite schools, such as Caltech, Harvard, MIT, and Stanford, to figure out what new projects to go after. These ideas are used to structure competitions. Then, the proposals generated from these competitions are evaluated by panels from these elite schools. And, you know who wins? Yes, professors from a list of elite schools not unlike the list used to generate the competitions and evaluate them.

People complain that earmarks might end up with some silly projects. My observation is that there are plenty of silly projects that come through the formal competitions as well.

Now, I’m sure they have good ideas. Heck, I have degrees from Princeton and Stanford, and I love those universities and highly respect the super-elite schools. But I think it’s good to have some budget in other areas because top universities don’t have a monopoly on smart ideas. 

I’m not completely against earmarks and believe that they need to be modest and have visibility. I think all earmarks should have Congressional testimony that includes very explicit information on what the work encompasses. This also would provide an opportunity for people to bring up the negatives. From this, members would have transparency and could rank them. Yes, some money is put in the normal process, but I think it’s in our best interest to cast a wider net.

Embry-Riddle Earmark Anecdotes

At Embry-Riddle, we did a couple of earmarks as well as getting some authorization language through to create some power balance. For one of the major earmarks, we were investigated. One of the chairs of one of the authorization committees in Congress wanted to collect data on the appropriation. I had to help develop a return memo talking about the number of times we testified, the number of members we met, the number of members who came to visit the site to talk about the project, the staffers we worked with, the importance of the project, and the executive departments we coordinated with, among other items.

I explained that the normal review processes didn’t really weigh these things properly. I also pointed out that it was a valuable investment for the nation because of our unique role in the aviation industry. We circulated our memos transparently so that people could see our position, and we received no further communication. 

Drone Earmark Anecdote

At Insitu, we worked with Senator Patty Murray’s office on a modest earmark for a new drone. She structured this as a research project as opposed to funding a drone that would have to be delivered to someone, which is how most of the drone appropriations were accomplished at that time. Our observation was that those drones that were acquired and forced on a government agency ended up being unused. So, we all thought that investing in R&D that would move the technology forward was a better approach. Then, we could apply those advancements to missions. To this day, I believe that she and her staff feels like this was one of the best earmarks for which she has advocated. She’s really proud of the lives that were saved because of the new technology we created. 

And honestly, these earmarks are the tough ones. The military is very structured and having some ideas from outside their thought processes could be helpful.

Federal Rules

The FAA requires airports that receive federal funding to be judicious in the use of the land. In fact, they encourage the area around airports to be commercialized, but they want the land used for aviation purposes to be at a lower rate than those used for non-aviation. At Embry-Riddle, we had a big battle with the FAA because we were co-located with an airport. There was a property next to the university that the airport was willing to lease to us, and we wanted it at the aviation rate since we were in the aviation and aerospace industry.

The local FAA department, however, wanted more money from us, saying that the particular space would be used for dormitories and that was a non-aviation use. We responded by saying that everything we do creates an educational opportunity for students – where they study and how they work is part of aviation. We had the FAA administrator on campus shortly after that and reviewed the situation. She agreed, but it was difficult for her to engage the local office.

To make it easy, we had language attached to an authorization bill that said any accredited aviation university or college located on an airport is entitled to pay anywhere from $0 to the aviation rate. We included a range starting at zero because some lower-cost smaller colleges and universities weren’t currently paying rent. The airports were okay with that because they wanted more activity. And truthfully, these schools couldn’t afford to pay.

Embry-Riddle could pay more, and we agreed to the aviation rate because we wanted our airport healthy. But at the same time, we thought our contributions to the aviation infrastructure was more than that particular airport. With that language in the bill, it made it more straightforward. The local FAA and the airport were happy that we paid at the upper end rather than what we were entitled to, the lower end. It was a win-win for both.

These examples of working with members and staffers were successful because of the upfront work of having relationships with them, creating memories, and helping them look good. When you go to them with a problem, you can try to get it fixed, create some balance, and make sure everyone’s happy.

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