contacting legislators who aren't mine?
March 14, 2009 9:17 PM   Subscribe

Etiquette for contacting state legislators (not necessarily my own)?

A few days ago, my house was burglarized and the burglars took some jewelry. Today a policeman brought me some photocopies to identify, and the items were absolutely mine. Unfortunately, he said, the burglars pawned them on the day of the theft, and by the time the cops got to the pawnshop near the end of the day, the pawnshop had already sold the jewelry to a scrap dealer for meltdown.

The policeman told me that there was currently a bill in the state legislature requiring pawnshop dealers to hold jewelry for seven days before selling to a third party. Even though there's no way for me to benefit from it personally at this point, I would really like this legislation to be passed!

I found the bill on the state website, and currently it's in a joint committee. I checked the membership and my elected officials are not on it. I would still really like to contact someone at the legislature about this bill. What is the appropriate way to go about it? Do I write to my legislator anyway and ask her to convey testimony to the committee? Can I contact the members of the committee directly?

Even though they are not strictly my elected representatives, I think this bill would benefit crime victims statewide, and I'd like them to hear about it before brushing the bill off to potentially die in committee.
posted by dlugoczaj to Law & Government (17 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
What is the appropriate way to go about it? Do I write to my legislator anyway and ask her to convey testimony to the committee? Can I contact the members of the committee directly?

Yes, all of those things. Treat them like what they are, public servants.

Phone calls and postal mail counts more, in their eyes, than e-mail communication.
posted by jayder at 9:33 PM on March 14, 2009

Jayder is right. You should also speak to the committee staff or administrators and see if there will be an opportunity for public testimony when the bill is up for consideration in the committee. Your testimony could put a useful human face on the bill.

The opponents of this bill (pawn shops and probably retail jewelers) have likely hired a contract lobbyist, who may or may not have good relationships with the committee members, but who will almost certainly be able to get people to come testify about how they think the bill will hurt them. It will be important for the committee members to hear from a real person in your situation.

But I think the single most important call you can make would be the chief sponsor of the bill. Even if they aren't your rep, I bet they would meet with you if you told their scheduler the whole story from above. And if this elected official has much in the way guts/honesty they will tell if they think the bill has a shot. They might have already traded for some other crap bill that they cared about more, or maybe the committee chair hates the sponsor for some childish reason. But if the sponsor of the bill is serious about making it happen, they can probably steer you in the right direction in terms of applying your energies the most productively.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 9:45 PM on March 14, 2009

I grew up as the child of a state legislator, and later in life got to work in a constituent relations office, which handled the mail for the particular elected official.

- Try to find out who opposes the bill - presumably a state organization representing pawnshops. Nicely refute their points in your letter with something in addition to your personal story.
- Be polite, keep it to one page, and make sure to type your letter (as opposed to handwritten).
- Make sure that your contact info is printed or typed clearly on the envelope and the actual letter.
- Include the complete number for the bill that you're writing about. I'd almost say put it in the last paragraph, so your letter stands a better chance of getting into the "share with the legislator" pile and not the "letters about bill A123" pile. A personal story, though, might just put the letter into the crank pile. It depends on the people reading it.
- Mail each legislator on the committee. Write a separate letter to your elected official explaining your personal interest in the bill, and asking for their assistance in lobbying their colleagues for the bill. Offer to meet with them, especially if you've gotten some publicity for your campaign.
- Find out if there's any public hearings scheduled about the bill, or a mechanism for public comment.
- Since your goal is getting the legislation passed, publicity might help - an article in the local paper is probably better than a letter to the editor.
- You're more likely to get a response to a letter than a phone call, and you're better off sending a snail-mail letter than an email in most cases.

Good luck, and my sympathies that the inspiration to become involved in the legislative process was a theft.
posted by booksherpa at 9:46 PM on March 14, 2009 [2 favorites]

Oh, and I'm guess that if there are any lobbyists on your side, it's a consumer-interest type group. Maybe the state PIRG or something? Again, the sponsor's office can probably tell you right away who your allies are.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 9:47 PM on March 14, 2009

Oh hey! You're in CT. Me too, and helping people comment on bills in CT is part of what I do. What's the bill number? Post it here or memail me, and I'll help you figure out more about where to go from here.
posted by hippugeek at 9:47 PM on March 14, 2009

Yeah contact your reps and tell them you want them to support the measure. They can then pull strings they've established and help bring it to a real vote.

I write to my Congressmen and Senators regularly. I still think hard copy letters are the way to go, but I've started receiving responses to emails back as emails (which I promptly tell them are not acceptable to me) so it is becoming more standard. Always request a specific answer, and a reply via the mode you desire. One thing to consider is that in the last few years letters to the House and Senate members have been going through screening for anthrax and the like and that slows down the read/response rate by weeks. A way around this is to mail the letter to a local office which is staffed and maintained pretty much just to deal with constituent issues (and fundraising, but we'll let that go).

Your letter to DC will be read by interns or staff members, your concerns/requests added to one or more databases or tally sheets, and the reply will be written by an intern or staff member with some specific person signing off on it. The same procedure happens at the politician's in state office, only a lot faster.
posted by Science! at 9:54 PM on March 14, 2009

Oh, wait this is the most important thing. Right now it's annecdotal as I can't dig up the source I read, but I'm almost positive that if you send a letter to a politician outside your state about an issue (ie not a personal "what's your favorite color" note), it's common courtesy for the recipient to forward it to the proper Congressman/Senator for a reply.
posted by Science! at 9:56 PM on March 14, 2009

Response by poster: Science!, this is a state bill, and I'm talking about state legislators (just not the specific reps/senators for my district). This has nothing to do with national legislators or anyone outside the state.

hippugeek, it's HB-5161. It's been in the Joint Committee on General Law since late January. No word about a public hearing on it, although another bill on jewelry and pawnshops did go up for a hearing a few months ago. That bill wouldn't do what I want, though--it's about pawnshop owners taking photographs of the jewelry that they get. The pawnshop owner in question pretty much did that, with the photocopies--it just does me a fat lot of good because the jewelry's already been melted down. My consolation is that I was able to give the cops a positive ID, and they have the driver's license of the seller.

Thanks for everyone's help. I think I'll be writing to the committee and particularly the sponsor.
posted by dlugoczaj at 10:06 PM on March 14, 2009

Good advice, Science!, but this bill is in the state legislature, so security will not be as tight and things will move along more quickly.
posted by hippugeek at 10:07 PM on March 14, 2009

Sorry, my misunderstanding. Best of luck.
posted by Science! at 10:19 PM on March 14, 2009

Hm. Okay.

Bad news first: 5161 has been allowed to die. The only text for it is the proposed bill language that was submitted in January, it hasn't been through a public hearing, there are no further General Law meetings scheduled at this time...and the GL Committee's deadline for JF-ing bills (basically getting them out of committee and recommending them onto the whole floor) was Tuesday. If you want to be sure on that, call Rep. Alberts' office and ask about the bill's status. But it looks dead to me.

Long-shot good news: that other bill, 6519, was just referred to the offices of Fiscal Analysis and Legislative Research, so it's on its way to the floor for an eventual General Assembly vote. That means it will actually be before your legislators. Call AND write to your own reps, Rep. Alberts, and the GL Committee chairs. Tell them your story and explain, in as much detail and as calmly as you possibly can, why 6519 does not offer adequate protections, and what you would like to see different. If you make your case well enough, there's a chance they'll push for amendments to include the requirement from 5161.

It's only fair to emphasize, though, that that probably will not succeed. I'd make yourself known to Alberts and your reps and start building support for another try next year.
posted by hippugeek at 10:34 PM on March 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

Just looked at the deadlines again. There's one more deadline on 3/17 that's called "Petition Committee to Report Out Bill"--which sounds like requesting the committee pass the bill along, but I'm not sure who has standing to request that or even whether it's possible without real bill language. You could call the Legislative Office Building Monday morning and ask to speak to the secretary for the General Law Committee for clarification.
posted by hippugeek at 10:42 PM on March 14, 2009

I worked for a state legislator for a couple of years, and answering letters was a big part of my job. Here is what I can tell you:

- You can absolutely send a letter to someone who is on a committee but is not your particular legislator. Keep in mind that since you're not directly voting for these members, however, they may be less inclined to care. That really depends on the individual legislator. The one I worked for would listen to anyone's suggestions, but I'm hopeful than even those not so inclined would at least recognize that people who aren't their constituent can still be active in their election, either physically or financially, either for or against them.

I answered letters quite often for people outside the district that had a stake in my legislator's committees. Particularly for something like the bill you describe, a legislator might find a letter of your personal experience helpful; it's an obscure enough kind of bill that it's not something legislators just go in knowing a lot about. They're human, just like everyone else, and having a human face put on an issue will make it easier to understand. So, for example, a legislator could seriously read your letter and think, "Oh, things like that really shouldn't happen, this bill makes sense." That's important, because it makes them more inclined to find a way to amend the bill to make it work when they run up against problems, instead of just throwing it out. So, for example, if pawn shops don't like the bill for X reason, your letter really could make the difference in whether or not a legislator cares enough to find an alternative solution or disregard the pawn shops' concerns as less important.

And, of course, it might make no difference at all. There's no way to predict the other factors that will enter in, but absolutely try! If I were you, I would send the same letter to every person on the committee. Letters about committees are generally received the same way letters from constituents are; if you only send it to some at random, there's no guarantee that all of them will read it or even be aware it exists. For that to happen, a legislator would have to take it with him or something and show it to them, and I just don't see that happening.

- Whether or not you get a response depends on the legislator. Some legislators only respond to their particular constituents, even if they read anything. Some only read letters from their particular constituents. And some legislators are just terrible about responding to anything. Some legislators might take several months to respond. Etc. Just know that if you sent a letter, they almost certainly got it.

If you do get a response, chances are it might be a vague one that says they will keep your opinions in mind when they go to committee. This doesn't mean they weren't listening, it just means they can't promise anything; chances are they'll read it, think your story makes sense, but it's just this pawn shop bill they haven't looked at much yet so they don't yet know what reasons there are not to pass it. Or they've heard letters both ways.

It's usually only the high profile bills that change something huge that legislators will have made their minds up about. And even then, some legislators won't say anything substantive in the letter. But basically, getting a response at all is a good sign but it assures you it's been read, so don't be disappointed if it doesn't say much.

- You can testify at the committee hearing yourself when they discuss the bill, provided that date hasn't already passed. I worked for a legislative tracking agency for a while too, so I've sat in on committee hearings to record who says what. It's very common for individuals to come in and testify. You may be able to find information about how to do this online; failing that, you can try calling around. I'm not sure how your particular state handles this.

The upside of showing up yourself is you'll get to hear what other people are saying about the bill. You'll also get a vibe for whether or not it's going to pass. If you pay attention to the particular legislators and their reactions, you might get an idea for which ones are responsible if it doesn't pass. Or you might hear arguments against the bill that make sense to you, too, so you won't be as irked if it doesn't pass. It's a rewarding thing to participate in, either way.
posted by Nattie at 7:29 AM on March 15, 2009

Response by poster: hippugeek, this is great, thank you. I'll be following up on that tomorrow.
posted by dlugoczaj at 10:52 AM on March 15, 2009

You're welcome. Let me know what happens!
posted by hippugeek at 12:38 PM on March 15, 2009

Response by poster: As it turns out, the other bill I was looking at is different from the one you told me about, hippugeek--and yours already DOES include exactly the provision I want: the holding period before third-party sales (originally proposed as 45 days and bargained down to 10, which I find acceptable).

There has already been a public hearing on it and testimony was pretty balanced (burglary victims, the Victim Advocates' Office, and the Police Chiefs' Association vs. individual pawnbrokers and their Association). At this point, would additional testimony from me make a difference? How should I follow through?
posted by dlugoczaj at 9:06 AM on March 16, 2009

DOH! You're absolutely right, and that's great news. Sorry for steering you wrong!

The bill is out of committee, so you can't submit testimony as such. But definitely write a letter urging support of the bill, explaining why, and asking what their position on it is. I'd address it to your two legislators, and cc it to the General Law chairs, Mike Alberts, and if you want maybe the legislative leaders--Williams, Donovan, Looney, Cafero, McKinney, and Merrill. Call your own legislators, too.

Good luck!
posted by hippugeek at 4:21 PM on March 16, 2009

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