Advice for Contacting Congress

(9 am. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

This essay was inspired by an interesting exchange in the Dog’s Weekly Torture Action Letter. The Dog’s work is excellent and we should continue to support his efforts. However, there was a bit of a discussion about the best tactics for contacting your legislators. I want to chime in with some thoughts of my own.

I want to say that the Dog’s letters are excellent. Please keep those letters moving, whether you are using the these letters or composing your own. We can make a difference.

Instead, this essay is more of a general primer for contacting your member of Congress or Senator about any topic.  First a little about me. I am not bragging, just establishing credentials. I am a graduate student in American politics in Washington. I have several friends who are Capital Hill staffers and my professor for a class in the Legislative process works on the Hill. I have not personally worked at the Capital, but that is mostly because I cannot afford to do the requisite unpaid internship in order to get a regular job (and I am starting a much cooler job tomorrow anyway). Before that, I wrote for a newspaper and regularly communicated with state and federal legislators. I am in a position to comment on this.

This advice is centered on contacting federal legislators, but the same advice applies to contacting state officials.

 

The most important thing to realize is that the Senator or Representative is probably not going to personally read your letter. That is the job of an unpaid intern or an underpaid staffer. The mail, e-mail, and call volume is just too much for the Member to handle personally.

These staffers do tally constituent communications and report to the Senator or Representatives. The reality is that your letter, call, e-mail, videotaped manifesto, etc. is just another slash on a notepad indicating “for” or “against.” Our job is to make enough contacts to get more slashes than the other side. (On the other hand, your state legislators might personally your letter and federal members of Congress sometimes do, too. Keep that in mind.)

With that in mind, here is CW’s advice for contacting Congress.

1. Letters: A letter is probably your most effective means of communication. Unlike phone and e-mail, there is a paper trail, even if the trail ends in a garbage can in the Cannon Office Building. Keep it short and to the point, but not too short. You are writing a letter about an issue. This is neither a rambling love letter nor is it a Tweet.

The best format is: Introduction, three paragraphs expanding upon a single point raised in the intro, conclusion repeating the points raised in the intro. You will be tempted to write a ten page manifesto. The sad reality is that most people lose interest after a few paragraphs (is anyone still reading this?), so be brief. This is the same reason newspapers use the inverted pyramid format. Industry studies show that most readers don’t read past the fourth paragraph.

2. E-mail. The same thoughts apply for e-mail messages. However, there is one other note. The most important consideration is which members you can contact. For example, my former member of Congress (who has since retired) only accepted e-mails from people in his district. You had to fill out a form, including your zip code, in order to send the Congressman an e-mail. If the Zip Code did not match those in the district, your e-mail would not be accepted. A little more about getting around this filter below.

3. Postcard campaigns. You are not the first person to dream up the idea of flooding Congress with cheap postcards all saying the same thing. Typically, these are tallied and trashed. DO NOT send 10,000 identical cards from different addresses. That looks like astroturfing and might get ignored. It is easy to fake such a campaign and the Congressional offices have seen this before.

If your organization wants to take this route, ask people to hand write personal messages and sign the cards. This legitimizes the campaign by showing that people actually care enough about the issue to write something about it, even if the campaign is organized by an interest group. Provide the postage too. It is expensive, but few people are going to go to the trouble of mailing a postcard if they have to track down a stamp, too. (AARP is particularly good at this strategy.)  

4. Phone calls. If I could have my own pointless law, it would be that no one may call customer service without first working in that industry. Think of the staffers as your government’s customer service representatives. Keep in mind that these are real people you are calling. You would not want someone calling you and screaming about something that is not your fault, even if your job is to answer the phone. To quote our gracious host, “Be excellent to each other… or else.” In this case. “or else,” could be that your legitimate concern is disregarded.

5. Facts. Keep them straight and well sourced. As much as we love Dcoudharma, Daily Kos, Empty Wheel, and the others, your argument is much stronger if you can cite actual government documents or legitimate news sources. “I just read on Free Republic…” is honestly not much different from saying, “I just read on Daily Kos…” If you really must do that, cite the sources the diarist or essayist used.

6. Conspiracy theories. Congress and staffers exists in the real world (Ron Paul notwithstanding). They actually do get a lot of calls about the government covering up UFOs. Don’t be that guy.

7. Committees. As promised, there is a way to get around constituents only filters. My Forthwith series is looking at the various committees. Look through the committees, review their jurisdictions and decide which one deals with your issue. Sometimes there will be multiple committees with jurisdiction. The committees have contact information on their websites.  

Contacting committees directly is advantageous because this is the level where members of Congress can effectively set policy on specific topics. Additionally, you will not have problems with members ignoring all but his/her own constituents. Here is the list of House Committees and here is the list of Senate Committees. The committees have their own staffers and interns handling communications and home district is largely irrelevant. Additionally, the average citizen does not normally contact committees, so there is a good chance you can have your say.

This is a particularly useful strategy if your member of Congress does not sit on a committee that handles your pet issue. The member’s staffer might even sympathize with your cause, but if his/her boss does not sit on the relevant committee, there is not much that can be done.

8. Profanity. If at all possible, avoid using the words “chucklefuck”, “twat,” “douchebag,” “greedy fat cat moran,” or “bitchcakes.”

Come to think of it, just don’t. As creative as you imagine your profanity and threats are, it just doesn’t help. This is the surest way to have your letter either 1) trashed or 2) held for future derision when staffers are bored or 3) attract the attention of certain members of the Executive Branch.

I hope this helps. Please let me know if I can be of further assistance. This will be posted in orange in a few minutes as well.  

4 comments

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  1. My new campaign: Bitchcakes for Congress.

    • rb137 on May 5, 2009 at 4:54 pm

    If your organization wants to take this route, ask people to hand write personal messages and sign the cards. This legitimizes the campaign by showing that people actually care enough about the issue to write something about it, even if the campaign is organized by an interest group. Provide the postage too. It is expensive, but few people are going to go to the trouble of mailing a postcard if they have to track down a stamp, too. (AARP is particularly good at this strategy.)  

    Postcard parties are the way to go.

    I’ve used this website (I mostly it dismantled after the primary in terms of links, etc.) to direct letter writing campaigns in the past. I’m going to convert it to an anti torture activism site — mostly to hold Heather’s speaking resume, radio clips, etc.

    Still on it now are dregs from old postcard campaigns from the primary (know ahead that I was an Obama supporter). See postcardsnotpitchforks

    (The links page is lame. The blog links that are there right now are for my parents’ benefit. The new version will have a good blogroll.)  

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