Contacting your Elected Representative
So, you're going to write your Congressman? That is a good idea! Make it an effective letter.
Most people write to their Congressman or Senators for one of two reasons: to express their opinion about a political issue under consideration in the Senate or Congress or to ask for help in dealing with a federal government problem. You can also write and invite your Senators or Congressman to attend an event in your community, to request a flag that's flown over the Capitol, to get congratulatory greetings for a friend or relative, or to get help with an appointment to one of the service academies.
A sincere, personal letter expressing your views and your concerns to your Senator or Congressman is effective, but for too long, most Americans have underestimated the effect they can have and thus have remained silent on many issues. Although Senators and members of Congress get hundreds of letters and emails every day it is important that you take the time to make yours an effective communication effort. Whether you choose to use the Postal Service or e-mail, here are some tips that will help your letter have impact:
Understand the Landscape
Congress is one of the three main branches of Government - the Legislative Branch. The other are the Executive Branch, headed by the President, and the Judicial Branch, consisting of our Supreme Court and other Federal Courts. Structurally, Congress consists of two "Houses," the Senate and the House of Representatives, and members of both Houses are termed Congressmen, although we usually address a member of Senate and "Senator" and a member of the House of Representatives and "Congressman." The Senate has two members from each State, regardless of population, while the number of members in the House of Representatives varies according to population, with each State having at least one member. States with more than one Representative in the House of Representatives are usually divided into Districts, with one Congressman from each District. This explains who each of us who live in States has two Senators but only one Congressman in the House of Representatives. Senators are elected for six-year terms, with one-third of the terms expiring every two years, and members of the House of Representatives are elected for two year terms. Congressional elections are held in November of each even-numbered year.
Elected representatives collect a salary that is paid for by the hard-earned taxes of their local, state or federal constituents, i.e., the voters that “hired” them and put them into office. In such an arrangement there is the reasonable expectation that those public servants will actually read the letters send to them, listen to the voice mail messages left for them to hear, and are attentive when personally visited. If the workload of a representative becomes so great that they physically cannot be effective at doing everything themselves, however, it is also reasonable to expect that they hire office staff personnel to assist in this effort. Such delegation may be reflected in the responses that are provided.
One aspect that should not be delegated, however, occurs when public opinion is expressed to their elected officials. The representative nature of our country’s government is based upon the “majority rules” perspective and therefore it is incumbent upon those elected into office to understand and abide by the wishes of their masters – the voters. The best signature of an elected official worthy of re-election into office lies in their legislative voting record and how well it mimics the desires of their constituency. It is incumbent upon the voters, however, to endeavor to inform their representatives of the desired perspectives on important issues and that means providing unsolicited letters and phone calls..
Do Your Research
The ultimate goal in writing to a Senator or Congressman is to present a clear cause-effect perspective where some action on their part will provide a positive outcome. Therefore you must understand exactly what is the issue to be addressed and be able to explain it so that someone unfamiliar with it would understand. Fully develop the logic to your argument ensuring to be as objective as possible before committing those thoughts to a letter. Know what details must be included and be prepared to omit details that take away from the description. You must also be able to articulate exactly what action you want your Senator or Congressman to take and the benefits that would result.
Don't feel as though you have to understand all of the legislative process before you write. Include the number of the specific bill that you're writing about if you know what it is. If you're writing to ask your Congressman to take a specific legislative action like voting a bill out of committee or co-sponsoring a new bill you might want to check and see whether or not he's already done what you've asked him to do. The Library of Congress has a service called THOMAS that allows you to check on the status of any bill or to see how your Congressman voted on a past bill.
If you're writing for help with an issue, it's important that you explain your situation in detail. Your Congressman will more than likely copy your letter and send it to the agency with which you're experiencing difficulty, so it's important that you mention all the facts. If you have previous letters from the agency, or other important paperwork, like military or medical records, it's important to send copies with your letter (however, please don't send originals of such important documents). If you're writing about a Social Security problem, a military problem, or Medicare or Medicaid benefits, please include your Social Security number. If you're writing about a tax problem, please include either your Social Security number or your tax identification number, if it's a business tax issue. If you're writing about an immigration problem, please include your alien registration number. If you're having trouble with the Veterans Administration, please include your VA number, and if you need old Army or Navy records, include your old service number. Including these important pieces of information helps speed your inquiry.
It's usually best to send letters to the Representative from your local Congressional District or the Senators from your state. Your vote helps elect them -- or not -- and that fact alone carries a lot of weight. Sending the same "cookie-cutter" message to every member of the Senate or Congress may grab attention but rarely garners much consideration. Many Representatives only provide responses to constituents from their district or state. Also, be realistic. Do not ask him or her to do general things like bring world peace, end the famines in Africa, etc.; they can no more do that than you can.
Elected Representatives (and their surrogates) are very limited in time so one-page letters (usually less than 500 words) are best. This length limit is generally enough to convey your message and is not so long that the reader becomes disinterested. Provide sufficient background, logic and detail in your argument to convince your audience but refrain from minutia that bogs down the delivery. In the first paragraph of your letter be sure to state what you want to have happen and subsequent paragraphs should support that request. Your Congressman will be more than happy to help you solve your problem with a federal agency, but in order to proceed, it's important that he or she knows specifically what kind of help you want.
Keep It Simple
Your letter should address a single topic or issue. Most position papers are delivered in a three-section format structured like this:
Identify the Problem.
Explain who you are and why you are writing by clearly and simply stating the purpose of your letter. If it's about a certain bill ensure to identify it correctly (if you need help in finding the number of a bill then refer to the Thomas Legislative Information System). Cite references (such as news articles or the bill number / title under consideration) to more fully explain the situation. List your credentials on this subject if you have any personal experience or professional education that lends weight to your discussion. State your assertion clearly in a ìbottom-line up front fashion.
Present the Evidence.
Provide your information logically in order to draw the reader to accept your perspective. If possible, progress from a ìbig pictureî perspective before driving to the detailed view. Be factual, concise; passionate but not overly emotional. Provide specific illustrations of how the topic affects you and others in the short term and the long term.
Derive a Conclusion.
The introduction and evidence should drive towards a conclusion. The main points addressed in the Introduction should be reinforced in the Conclusion. Close by recommending the action you want taken: a vote for or against a bill, or change in general policy. When closing ensure to thank the member for taking the time to read your letter.
Be an Original
Use your own words in writing a letter. Using your own words is much more effective than echoing an argument you've read somewhere else. Use common, conversational language - like you'd use in talking to a friend - and avoid boilerplate text. Communication has more impact if the words are yours and not those of some public affairs person assigned to generate a grassroots campaign. Use the prepared text (i.e., a "talking points" paper) as a guide only.
Know the Competition
If you are writing to convince your lawmaker to take specific legislative action it is important to recognize that they do so based upon a lot of input. Our representative form of government enables the majority of voting citizens to have the ultimate authority in deciding whether or not a Senator or Congressman retains their job at the end of each election. Unfortunately paid lobbyists representing special interest groups, iconic politicians professing ideological perspectives and "talking head" interpretations from the mass media can have a very filtered but significant impact on the voting patterns of elected representatives. Letters, phone calls and personal visits to our representatives are the best way to convey the interests of We the People in order to influence how that elected leader votes.
Influencing the way your legislators vote on important issues does not include sitting on the couch yelling at your television. Chances are that if you feel passionate about an issue then many other voting citizens feel the same way. That passion could be translated into influential pressure upon the elected representatives in a sense who work for the votes to keep them in office only if properly channeled. Although blogging is a great way to vent frustration about an issue there is little chance that your representative is going to read your post. A constructive use of that energy, however, is to format your blog posts into a well-written letter to your Senator or Congressman and submit it via the online portals that they all maintain. While you are there you can sign up to receive your Senator or Congressman's e-mail as they often solicit input from the people they represent.
In communicating with your Senator or Congressman it is important that your contact be personal. Senators and Congressmen alike openly acknowledge that mass-produced mailings, form letters, or petitions get no response and usually go into the trash. In their view if a person does not feel strongly enough about a bill or an issue to express himself in a personal, original letter, then he or she will receive little serious consideration. A personal letter is effective - even a short one - and letter writing is not only easy but often takes less time than imagined. Usually, the difficulty is simply in getting started; once you begin your letter, the thoughts and feelings flow easily.
You will experience a lot of personal growth by writing letters to your Senators and Congressman. Unlike most people that post short snippets on a blog page or craft very informal e-mails to friends, knowing that your letter may be read by an important government official will encourage you to be clear, concise and organized. Motivating yourself to frequently write notes on subjects that you consider important will crystallize your thinking on those subjects and become evident when you discuss those issues with other people. Over time this practice will greatly improve your critical thinking skills and sharpen your perspective of the mass media, political decisions, the people that make those decisions, and your responsibility as an American Citizen.
Here are some key things you should always and never do in writing to your elected representatives.
Be courteous and respectful without "gushing."
Say who you are. Anonymous letters go nowhere. Even in email, include your correct name, address, phone number and email address. If you don't include at least your name and address then you should not expect to get a response.
Use vulgarity, profanity, or threats. The first two are just plain rude and the third one can get you a visit from the Secret Service.
Simply stated, don't let your passion get in the way of making your point and remember that threats tend to bring out the stubborn side in most individuals.
Don't engage in insults or partisan name-calling. There's enough of that in Washington to go around as it is.
Fail to include your name and address, even in email letters
Demand a response
Identify the Specific Legislation
Cite these legislation identifiers when writing to members of Congress:
House Joint Resolutions:
Senate Joint Resolutions:
Addressing Your Representative
To Your Senator:
The Honorable (full name)
Senate Office Building
United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510
To Your Representative:
The Honorable (full name)
House Office Building
United States House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515
When writing to the Chairperson of a Committee or the Speaker of the House, address them as:
Dear Mr. Chairman
Dear Madam Chairwoman
Dear Mr. Speaker
Dear Madam Speaker
If done right, a letter to your elected representative will be a significant investment of time and effort. It will be on a subject that you are passionate about and you will probably want to share those thoughts with more than a limited audience. Maximize these fruits of your labor by “repackaging” them for other influential outlets.
Letters to the Editor
The “bones” of a good letter to your elected representative could also be used to craft a letter to the editor of your local newspaper. If you are writing about a piece of legislation that impacts your fellow citizens then letters to the editor of your local newspaper – if published – would invite greater public discourse on the subject. If the points in your argument are well crafted you may gain wider popular support for that issue and ultimately influence the voting performance of that audience. For this reason your elected representatives should pay attention to these sentiments.
Posting Blog Comments
Much of the research material for your letter to an elected representative may be taken from national and regional media outlets. This includes major newspapers, broadcast (cable, satellite, etc.) news sources and reputable Internet sites. Many of these sources also invite online comments to the article and this is a great opportunity to share the perspective developed in your letter with other readers. Some sites require you to register by answering a few questions, providing a personal e-mail address and selecting a login / password combination so keep a record of this data for future reference. Keep in mind that many blog sites limit the number of characters available per post so you may need to be very selective in your comment.
Let’s face it… forwarding to your friends the letter you wrote to your elected representatives is a fun way to start up an e-mail discussion. Most people give serious consideration for who should receive an e-mail on a political issue so that only like-minded readers will be a recipient. Keep in mind that once you push the “send” button, however, you lose control of who may ultimately read your political comments… so ensure to keep them “Rated G”.
References used for this webpage: