Understanding Congress Part 5 of 7: Communicating with Congress
As part 1 of this series suggests, one of the primary purposes of Congress in a representative democracy is to represent their constituents. So how then do Americans have their voice heard? This part is designed to provide guidance in that effort.
Below the infographic there is a textual description jump to here.
Part 1 of 7: Congress Overview
Part 2 of 7: Making sense of Congressional Terminology
Part 3 of 7: How are laws are made
Part 4 of 7: Types of Bills
Part 5 of 7: Communicating with Congress
Part 6 of 7: How Votetocracy can help Americans
Part 7 of 7: The Influence Landscape
Communicating with Congress is not necessarily a two-way street to the extent you might expect.
While Members of the House and Senate receive written and faxed letters from constituents, the lion’s share of communication comes in the form of e-mails.
The simplicity that technology offers has created a problem for Member office staff; depending on the Member’s role in a controversial bill, his or her popularity and outreach back home, and other factors, e-mails from constituents has risen. The problem staff encounters is the time to read through each email, letter, or fax, parse the information into constituent support for any number of issues, and respond in a meaningful way.
Unless you are communicating about a specific issue such as an appointment to the Naval Academy, a problem you are having with an agency or department or programs, or any matter that is specific to the Member using their expertise to help you solve a problem, your communications should be brief.
While it is tempting to write long, detailed, explanations of why you support or oppose a bill the Member will soon vote on, the most important information to your elected official is your position on the bill, so the most effective communication is a simple ‘I support’ (or oppose) the bill or resolution coming to the floor. Specific reasons for your opposition can also be stated if you think, for example, the bill is sound but a provision of it is not.
Some Members are not responsive, others (most) send out a pre-written response form, others do take the time to respond in details but that tends to be the exception. So, if you expect a detailed response to a detailed and complicated letter, you will likely be disappointed more often than not.
Who to contact
You might have an opinion on a matter and want to write to the Speaker of the House, for example, but you do not live in his district. Speakers will receive such emails. But if you contact other Members or committee Members not in your district the procedure is to forward your letter or email to your Representative of Senator. The most direct contact you can make, then, is your elected official who, ultimately will receive it no matter who you send it to. And there is a reality to that procedure and why Members and other districts and States aren't likely to act on your wishes...you don't vote for them and they don't represent you
How to communicate
There are many ways to communicate with elected officials depending on what you want to accomplish. Some are more efficient than others but all get through. So it is better to first decide what you want to accomplish. Would that be simply to tell him or her you oppose or support a bill? Perhaps you have some official need that your elected official can help you with? Is there something specific about a bill that you need clarification on? Decide and then pick the means of communications available.
Regular mail letter
Regular mail to Congress are sent to a facility to test for anthrax or other dangers before being sent to the designated Member, so you can expect weeks before it is in the hands of your elected official. It is not clear if the letters are read at that facility but it is not likely simply because of the volume of mailing. If it must be by letter you can circumvent the delays by had delivering the letter to the local Member office. Then, local matters will be handled locally and legislative issues are forwarded to the Capitol Hill office. (Use this if the matter is not time-sensitive but requires a written record and an explanation, such as problems with veteran disabilities, Social Security, and other such programs where a Member of Congress can intervene and solve your problem)
A more direct way of getting a written letter to a Member is by fax. Fax numbers can be gotten …. or …. . (On Votetocracy.com, TWIC, or Senate and House websites) (Use this if the matter is not time-sensitive but requires a written record and an explanation, such as problems with veteran disabilities, Social Security, and other such programs where a Member of Congress can intervene and solve your problem)
As stated above, the ease of communicating with this technology has created volume problems. In this quick and efficient technology it is best to be quick and efficient when stating your opinion or need. It helps office staff if the subject line is something along the line of HR 1234 opposed, followed by text restating that with or without any explanation. If it has to do with congressional services then enter that on the subject line and explain further in the text area of the email. (Use this if you want to briefly register your pro or con for a specific bill or, perhaps, if you want to generally show support for the Member. If not an opinion on a bill but to inquire about constituent services, this is a good starting point as well as visiting the local office or a telephone call.)
All Members of the House and Senate have website on which you can communicate with their offices directly. There you will see a form to fill out. Some ask for more specific information than others. On those sites you may find content that explains the Member’s position on a specific matter. (Use this if you want to briefly register your pro or con for a specific bill, inquire about constituent services, and want to get on his or her email newsletter list)
Group or organization generated letters
You have probably seen opportunities to sign on to a prewritten letter that takes a position on a bill or other congressional issue that is then transmitted to your elected official. The question that seems to be gathering on such email letters is whether or not the volume is valid and, of course, the length of the letter. Such letters are an indication of your support for the group or organizations as well as the issue at hand. (Use this if the letter you agree to expresses your position clearly, accurately, and thoroughly. If the letter addresses other matters you are not concerned with, most allow you to edit the letter before agreeing to it. Consider the more personal communications options you have)
It is not likely you will get through to your elected official for a conversation but a phone call is quick and efficient and your position on an issue is recorded in either the pro or con list. The public communicated greatly and successfully with Senators a few years back when it was considering the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act revisions. Public input most certainly helped define the bill in the end. (Use this for brief pro or con messages on bills or issues, or to get clarification on a need your Member may be able to help you with. The calls should be brief. Don’t hesitate to ask to speak to someone informed on the bill or issue you are calling about. Expect to wait for a call back. Don’t expect a long conversation discussing a bill or other matter.)
Letters to the Editor
A recent study showed that over 80% of local congressional office staff believes that letters to the editor have the highest impact on Members. Most newspapers limit word count in letters to 250 or 300 words. A check with the paper will clarify that. The downside to that type of communication is that not all letters to the editor are printed or printed at a time reasonably close to when the letter was sent. If you can make your point clearly, interesting, compelling and readable within 600 words, you may want to submit a guest column for consideration. Such a column would be of great interest to the Member but the downside is the same as a letter to the editor; it may not get printed due to space, volume of other submissions, or other reasons. Editorial pages are the tightest pages in any publication and the rule of thumb is the letter or column usually has to address something the paper has published within the past seven days. (Use this if you believe the greater community should read about your concerns or support, but it is not a guaranteed way to get your message out due to the possibility you will not be published.)
Townhall and other meetings
If you subscribe to your elected official’s email newsletter (Signup on the Member’s website) you will get from most a list of speaking engagements when the Member is back in his or her district or State. A civic-minded newspaper may also publish that schedule. Some meetings might be on a specific topic such as addressing a veterans group so the appropriateness of a question about an unrelated bill or subject might be in question. But the opportunity to catch the Member after the speech for a question is possible. Less specific townhall-type meetings generally leave the subjects up to the audience members who ask the questions. In the recent past, townhall meetings in some districts have become disrupted and even violent. We don’t recommend that you do anything to inspire that reaction to your comments. (Use this if you want to attempt to have a direct question and answer with your elected official but don’t mind being opposed, vigorously, by attendees with an opposing view.)
Visiting the local office
Perhaps the best way to build a reasonable relationship with your elected official’s staff is to drop into the local office and discuss your concerns or needs there. It is a direct contact and the staff can advise you or how to precede, the best ways to communicate, and other relevant matters. (Use this as an introduction to the local staff, to gain their assistance on communications and any other need the Member can meet.)
Your elected officials represent you whether you voted for them or not. But they and their offices are busy people so communications should be a brief and clear as possible. Choose the way to communicate above that best fits your goals for communicating.
(This section provided by TheWeekInCongress.com)