How to write my congressperson?
July 30, 2006 9:45 AM   Subscribe

What is the most effective way of influencing my senator or representative?

Occasionally I feel that I should write my senator or representative to register my position on a particular issue. I know how to write a letter, and have seen various online tips. I want the real scoop. How much more effective is a letter vs. an email? Do I need to reference a particular bill or can I simply give my stance on an issue that doesn't necessarily have some pending legislation? What moves my letter from the crazy nutjob pile to the important voting constituent pile? I'm particularly interested in hearing from people who have worked in a representative/senator's office.
posted by justkevin to Law & Government (23 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
posted by mulligan at 9:48 AM on July 30, 2006

Unfortunately, Mulligan has it. If you are a big contributor, then you specifically will be paid attention to. Otherwise you just go into the crank pile.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 9:49 AM on July 30, 2006

I've worked in a Senator's office as a mail manager. The people reading your letter will be able to spot the "crazy nutjob" letters from the reliable ones in a second, they've seen a billion of them before. Just write a normal respectful letter and you're guaranteed that someone is going to pass it up the chain.

Here's the thing, though. The Senator in question is almost never going to see it. There are maybe two senator that read the mail that comes into their office, and they're from like Delaware and Rhode Island. What will happen is that the thoughts in your letter will be tallied by some staffers and at the end of a given week, the policy directors in the office will be informed of the tally. If there is some outstanding upswelling of feeling in the state about a particular issue that the Senator is undecided on, there's a small chance that your letter and your feelings (combined with the feelings of many of your neighbors) may have an effect on how the Senator votes.

Two other notes: First, the companies that have a web pages where they ask you for your zip code and automatically form email the senator are mostly disregarded by hill offices. You have to show some larger amount of initiative than that. Secondly, a phone call will usually have slightly more effect than a letter will.
posted by Inkoate at 9:58 AM on July 30, 2006 [8 favorites]

Things are more effective to the degree that they're difficult, annoying, or time-consuming for you to send. Stuff that looks like form letters that you just sent off again, be it physical or email, gets discounted for that reason.

The odds of any MC paying particular attention to your letter as a single thing are slim unless they know you for some reason. They represent somewhere between 600,000 and 30,000,000 people, and get lots of mail. Your letter will be important as one datum in a sea of aggregate statistics about constituent opinion. The tips are designed so that a staffer can quickly and easily quantify your opinion, and so that it's obvious that this isn't an interest group's form letter.

Or, your Representative in particular is likely to make lots and lots of appearances at various functions that are open to the public and in which you can ask questions or just chat. Go to several and bring up the issue in a non-crank way.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:02 AM on July 30, 2006

Yep... $.
posted by rolypolyman at 10:07 AM on July 30, 2006

Unless you have something they want, your pretty much a voice in the sea of opinions.

Money, head of a big org, head of a union, a powerful voice in a group of people, etc will get you heard more than a normal chap on the street.
posted by SirStan at 10:37 AM on July 30, 2006

Your best bet is to write a respectful letter, or better yet to get many other fellow citizens to write a respectful letter. You could even write a sample letter to which they could sign their names and mail or fax it to the Senator's office.
posted by caddis at 10:52 AM on July 30, 2006

Find out where they're gonna be and ambush them.

No, seriously.
posted by reklaw at 10:55 AM on July 30, 2006

see releated question about tools to email elected officials here:
posted by chefscotticus at 11:05 AM on July 30, 2006

In other words, the real way to get heard is to have LOTS of people echo you.
posted by phrontist at 11:10 AM on July 30, 2006

$: Not so effective.
$$$: Effective.
posted by adamrice at 11:13 AM on July 30, 2006

I have to concur that, in this situation, money definitely talks. There are countless examples out there of people who contributed serious money to a campaign and, in return, recieved some face time with a candidate.

I've got a book on my shelf called The Washington Payoff: An Insider's View of Corruption in Government by Robert Winter-Berger. It's the author's first hand account of handing out campaign contributions in return for access to elected officials in 1970s Washington. At one point, he wants to meet with Gerald Ford and the price is, I think, five hundred bucks. Seriously; someone quotes him a specific price for meeting with Gerald Ford for a few minutes, as if he's ordering it off a fucking menu. He pays it and he gets his meeting. I suppose if he'd wanted Teddy Kennedy it would have only been 350.

I see no reason to think that this has changed in the intervening decades. Except, of course, I'm sure the prices have gone up. Oh, and these days, if you regularly contribute a large amount of money to the VP's coffers, he apparently throws in a face full of buckshot at no extra charge.
posted by Clay201 at 12:43 PM on July 30, 2006

Representatives at least usually have many functions where they're trying very hard to give away face time to constituents, but relatively few take the offer. Lots of open meetings, speeches to local civic organizations, campaign functions, and the like.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:24 PM on July 30, 2006

Since the maximum individual contribution to any candidate is only $2000, plan on speding that amount to get any face-time.

What they really like are people who can convince four or five of their friends to donate the same amount. $10,000 will greatly increase the likelihood that your rep will speak with you personally.

Oh, and include a respectful letter with your check. They love that; it makes them feel like they're "serving the people".
posted by briank at 1:25 PM on July 30, 2006

I've found that the most effective way of getting your voice heard with your elected representatives is to volunteer for campaign work. I worked the press area for the last Kerry visit here in Madison, WI in 2004. I met and spoke with Russ Feingold (took a great pic with my son), Tammy Baldwin (Congressional rep), Doyle (Governor), the mayor and his crew, and a bunch of other local officials. In each conversation, they had some spare time before going on stage or speaking to someone else, and we had a real conversation about my concerns.

Additionally, I got to speak to Bruce Springsteen, Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters), Kelly O'Donnel (NBC news, and quite the cutey), Tom Brokaw, and a bunch of other "names". My conversations with them were more like "Duh.....I'm a big fan, gawsh."
posted by thanotopsis at 1:26 PM on July 30, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks for all the responses. Some clarification:

I'm not interested in meeting my congressman or making a contribution. I want to write a letter that will tell whoever reads it that there's one voting consituent who feels strongly about this issue.

Any more responses toward that goal are greatly appreciated.
posted by justkevin at 1:52 PM on July 30, 2006

Write a letter with a normal business tone to it. Be straightforward and direct. Make it easy for the staffer to see what it is that you want and correctly classify your letter's content. Do not curse, GO INTO ALL CAPS, or reference nature's harmonious time-cube.

Another related option: if one of your MCs includes a survey as part of their communication, fill it in and return it (or whatever it specifies).
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:08 PM on July 30, 2006

Do research for your elected person! Research includes: facts/history/opinion data on the stuff you are talking about.

Facts meaning facts, verifiable by sources that are broadly considered reliable.

Keep it brief in the initial letter but make a persuasive argument and let them know where the facts are available.

Do volunteer on their campaign. It's insanely fun hard work. Like the production of a piece of investigative journalism, the running of a candidate for office exists in a strange dimension where everything that can possibly go wrong will, as quickly and as weirdly as possible. Everybody should do it at least once. You will also learn lots about the district.

Hang around party circles, volunteer like the dickens and develop friendly relationships with the staff in the office. Ask experienced people who to talk to about what. Some of the staff will play a large part in actually determining what the office-critter's politics/policy really are. Those are good staff to get to know.
posted by By The Grace of God at 2:48 PM on July 30, 2006

Oh, and your office-critter will have close political relationships with mayors, state representatives, union and/or business leaders, and the like. These people helped get him or her where she is today, and marshal the troops during all-important election season. All of whom also require volunteers (especially technical ones) and may be more accessible/open to listening to you.
posted by By The Grace of God at 2:50 PM on July 30, 2006

If you really have a valid angle that should be heard, just go meet them. Go to your district office when he/she is in town, or even better get in touch with the DC office and ask for a tour. It's very easy to belive that all our pols are so tied up in scandal and corruption they no longer exist on the same plain of reality as the rest of us. But from personal experience, pols love regular people and usually wish more non-cranks would try and contact them.

If you really want to get off on the right foot get in contact without an agenda first, disarm them and take it from there.

Remember its just another person.
posted by paxton at 3:10 PM on July 30, 2006

Use words like momatoes, pasghetti, make numerous threatening references to the UN, and then at the end of your letter, write "screw Flanders" over and over again.

Or more seriously, they'll pay attention to WHO you are (titles, position, influence) and WHAT you want (clear, concise) and what you can GIVE (money, influence, votes, etc). Get more of any of those and you'll get more attention.
posted by blue_beetle at 4:21 PM on July 30, 2006

From a friend in the know: Assuming you mean your federal legislators, mail it to their district/state offices rather than the DC office. Mail is slow to Capitol Hill offices due to all of the anthrax/whataveyou screening. Some offices were taking part in a program where all of their mail was scanned and forwarded digitally which would get it there a little faster. I'm not sure what happened with this. Mail is "tallied" the same way whether it's recieved in DC or in state for every office I'm familiar with. If there's pending legislation you're interested in, include the title or bill number and clearly say whether you're for it or against it. This is probably all that your legislator will see. The reasons, etc might make an impression on the staffer who reads it, but they are usually not in a policy position (though turnover and thus advancement can be pretty quick, so today's receptionist could be next year's leg. director).

If you want to communicate a general position (say, pro-life) you can write a letter but in my experience, it's not as helpful.

Emails you write yourself are great, though aren't always counted the same as a thoughtful letter. Emails from MoveOn (or anything similar) are as good as worthless (unless maybe your Rep. was elected with a ton of support from said site).
posted by jaysus chris at 6:48 PM on July 30, 2006

*I work for an MP in Canada (caveat: fewer constituents, riding contains approx. 80, 000 voters, strong party discipline so [MP] almost always votes along party lines, constit. office consists of four staffers besides me, Hill office consists of one.) I make no claims as to the degree to which it might translate to an American setting (nor even necessarily to another Canadian MP)*

The way to approach [MP] depends on the issue.

If it's a big, front page, fate-of-the-nation type question: emails and letters receive a reply, usually drafted by me (with personalization depending on how many other letters on this issue I've written recently), that is read and approved/signed by [MP]. Calls are dealt with by whomever happens to answer the phone. If on one of these, a constituent demands to speak with [MP] and is civil and gives us some basic information (name, contact info, issue) -- we will almost always be able to set up a brief (15 min.) chat with [MP]. Either way, issue and stance will be tallied.
Form letters get a form response. It's incredibly obvious when it happens, and [MP] has said flat out, that (s)he discounts such submissions quite strongly, as they're often the product of a signup sheet being passed around at a sermon, PTA meeting, union meeting, etc. and not as reflective of a strongly held opinion as a letter obviously researched and written by the person submitting it.

On the whole, our crude rule of thumb is that every person who writes a personal letter represents +/- 25 people who have had the same thought (and perhaps even said... I should write [MP] and tell him/her that.)

If it's a very personal, specific problem (immigration, Canada Revenue, etc.):Your case will be dealt with by our casework specialist (some offices, like Ruby Dhalla's have seven... because our riding has fewer immigrants, we only have one). If you are a VIP, [MP] might make a few calls on your behalf. In general, though, we can act as a guide as you work your way through the system, but we can do very little to push people ahead of the line, or to change decisions made by various panels/boards/courts, etc.

If it's a relatively technical, or relatively local issue: This is where [MP] can do the most for you, and where [MP] will be most likely to sit down and meet with someone (as opposed to listen to someone). If you represent a local union, or a local manufacturer, or are a municipal politician, etc. [MP] is definitely interested in what you have to say and will do his best to bring these concerns before the relevant Minister/HOC committee/policy group, etc.

A few final points:
1. We had a constituent come in last week with a problem that was almost entirely a provincial issue. Nonetheless, [MP] met with her, and gave her some good advice, which might be applicable to the OP's situation: depending on how technical/obscure the issue with which you're dealing is, politicians are often not the best people to talk to. This constituent had actually met with the provincial Minister responsible for the file under which her issue fell, but was not making much headway.

As [MP] explained, Ministers rely on their Ministry staff to make policy recommendations. If these staffers aren't recommending the policy you want, it's unlikely to get implemented. In Canada, as in the US, these bureaucrats are appointed based on merit, and are shielded from political pressures. Our constituent was thinking that putting media pressure on the Deputy Minister (an unelected civil servant) might be a good idea... what [MP] and I tried to explain, was that she (the Deputy Minister) didn't really care about the media.

The good thing about this, though, is that the policy wonks can be convinced to help you if your proposal is in fact good policy. This might be easier than convincing a politician... who will only push for your policy if he/she thinks it will win votes.

2. The way you handle us (the staff) makes a big difference in any eventual interaction with [MP.] [MP] will occasionally decide to answer phones in the office (which sends the staff into fits), but almost always you have to get through a gatekeeper. If you are rude with us... we will not reward that behaviour by putting you through to [MP]. You would not believe the number of people who tell us that their issues are "personal" and refuse to speak to anyone but [MP]. Well... guess what? The more [MP] knows going into the meeting, the better prepared (s)he can be, and thus the better (s)he can help you... also, we have no idea whether or not you're a nutjob, and the paranoid routine isn't helping. [MP]'s time is valuable... so please show us, that you're not going to waste it with a rant that's interesting as a psychological curiousity but is politically useless. The more information you can give us... and the more you can convince us that your problem is A) solvable, and B) potentially responsive to efforts by [MP], the more likely you are to get a face-to-face meeting.

Of course, it also helps to be well-spoken, clean, well-dressed, employed, educated, calm, etc.

If you're an expert on a relatively obscure (but, perhaps, currently relevant) issue... [MP]'s thrilled to meet with you. Politicians are only human... between MP, and the staff, we have a decent grasp of the big issues... but there's always room to assimilate new information, and [MP] is very open to that if (s)he thinks it will be useful. Opinions are good. Information, perspective, contacts, influence (i.e. over a union, business group, teacher's association, neighbourhood commitee, etc.), and plain old personal relationships are better. If you can offer some or all of those things, you have a much better shot at being listened to.

3. Money: When the Accountability Act passes, donations will be limited to $1, 000 -- a relatively small hurdle. Being one of those donors helps a bit... but as much because it signifies one of the quintent above, as for any tactical value. [MP] meets with non-donors, and even non-supporters as often (if not more) as not.
posted by ewiar at 9:13 PM on July 30, 2006 [1 favorite]

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