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Legislators & Policy-Makers

Guidelines for Contacting Your Representative


One of the most important skills you can learn in grassroots advocacy is how to communicate effectively with your elected representatives. How you go about exercising your channels of communication — and how often — will directly influence your odds for success. Simply taking the time to stay in contact with your members of Congress and their staff people, will build relationships that can pay significant dividends when you need your voice heard on Capitol Hill.


WRITING AN EFFECTIVE LETTER TO YOUR LEGISLATOR

  1. Identify yourself early in the letter, including the fact that you are a constituent and that you are writing on behalf of other individuals, if applicable.
  2. Give the reason for your letter and refer to the specific legislation in the first or second paragraph.
  3. Explain how the issue in question directly affects you.
  4. Try to use as many relevant facts as possible and back them up with sources, if available.
  5. Be specific about the action you want your legislator to take, whether it's voting one way or another on legislation, expressing views on an issue, or sending you information.
  6. While you should make all the relevant key points in your letter, try to keep it as short as possible. Furthermore, you should concentrate on only one issue in your letter, rather than addressing a number of different ones.
  7. It is not always necessary to type your correspondence to your legislators. If your letter is handwritten, make sure it is legible and, if possible, use either personal or business stationery that indicates your return address and telephone number.

RULES OF CORRESPONDENCE TO YOUR LEGISLATOR

The envelope and inside address should appear as follows:

SENATE:

The Honorable John Smith

United States Senate

Washington, DC 20510

Dear Senator Smith:

Re: Senate Bill #1234

HOUSE:

The Honorable Susan Jones

United States House of Representatives

Washington, DC 20515

Dear Congressman Jones:

Re: House Bill #5678

Sending a copy of your letter to your legislator's home district office can also be very effective, particularly when Congress is in recess.

CALLING YOUR LEGISLATOR'S OFFICE

While it is best to express your views through written correspondence, time sensitive situations may arise that warrant a phone call to your representative's office. When calling, try to apply the relevant letter-writing guidelines (detailed above), and also consider the following suggestions.

  1. Unless you are a personal friend of the legislator, it is not necessary to speak directly with him or her. You can leave a message about your concerns with the individual who answers the phone, or better yet, with the appropriate staff member.
  2. Try not to argue, just express your opinions. Say why you feel the way you do and state what action you want your legislator to take.
  3. Seek assurances that the message will be brought to the attention of your legislator, and request a response in writing.
  4. It is very important when calling a legislator's office to remember two cardinal rules: Be sure to give your full name and address; and, keep your call short and to the point.

If you do not already have their phone numbers, you can reach your U.S. senators' or representative's office in Washington through the Capitol switchboard at (202) 224-3121.

The telephone numbers of home district offices of both your Congressman and Senator usually can be found through local directory assistance and are generally located in the largest city in the area.

MEETING WITH YOUR LEGISLATORS

By taking the time and effort to meet with a legislator — especially if it requires that you travel a long distance — you are proving that you care a great deal about the issue in question.

Once again, all the tips pertaining to writing and telephoning a legislator also apply to conducting an effective meeting. Several of these are important enough to repeat:

  1. identify yourself as a constituent and emphasize the fact that you are speaking for others, if appropriate;
  2. relate the issue to your personal situation and the impact it has on your business or community; and
  3. make your presentation short, to the point, and factually based.

Here are some additional points to remember when setting up and participating in a meeting with your elected officials.

(a)
It is best to write or call ahead to arrange for an appointment. You should list several alternate dates, the purpose of your meeting, what group you are representing, and how many individuals will be in attendance.
(b)
You should be well prepared to present your case, both orally and in writing. Assume that the legislator knows few details about the issue when you prepare your presentation. Plan to spend about five to seven minutes briefing the legislator on the issue — providing background information, stating what the legislation will do, and giving specifics about its impact on you, your community, and the rest of the lawmaker's constituents. You might also want to prepare a succinct, one-page "talking points" document for your legislator, in addition to in-depth briefing materials for his or her staff members. Be prepared to answer any questions that might logically arise, but don't be afraid to say, "I don't know," or "I'll have to get back to you with that information."
(c)
Be sympathetic to the time demands made on legislators. The first way to do this, of course, is by arriving at your appointment on time.
(d)
If it is not possible to meet with the legislator directly, it is often just as effective to meet with the staff member who handles such issues. Most legislators rely heavily on their staff for information and guidance on what position to take on legislation. If you can convince the appropriate staff member to see things your way, it is very likely that you will succeed in your mission.
(e)
Do not get into heated arguments, no matter how much you may disagree with what the legislator or staff member is saying. If your discussion reaches that point, it is very unlikely that you will be able to convince others of the wisdom of your viewpoint. Don't ever jeopardize a good relationship; in the future you may need each other's help.
(f)
Always follow-up promptly after your meeting. Send any information you promised to provide and a "thank you" letter recapping the important points of your meeting and detailing any required next steps.
(g)
Once you have established a channel of communication with a legislator, keep it open by periodically writing with new information on this and other pertinent issues, or even by just sending a note that says, "You're doing a great job! Keep up the good work!"

 

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