Making Your Voice Heard: Effective Ways to Contact Your Congressman
Let me guess…there are a few things going on in our country right now that are really concerning to you? You want to do something about it, but you’re not quite sure what to do? Well, it’s your lucky day, because I’ve got some tips that can help you with that. But before I reveal my secrets, I need you to do something for me.
To really be helpful to you, I need you to be honest with me: Do you know the names of your members of Congress? If you don’t, we need to fix that immediately. I can’t help you otherwise. So before we go any further, you need to click here and type in your zip code in the upper right hand corner where it says, “Find your representative.” Easy, right? You can do the same thing here to find out your senators. Don’t tell yourself you’ll do it later. Do it right now.
Done? Good. Now lets move on.
Poll after poll suggests that a huge chunk of Americans have no idea who represents them in Congress–particularly young people. But the good news is, you are no longer part of those statistics because you just found out who represents you.
Now that we’re all on the same page, let’s talk about why we need to know them. Like we previously mentioned, everyone has issues they are passionate about. It’s part of being human. Doing something about those issues is what sets you apart. If you want to be politically active and help make a difference, you’re in the right place. Those congressman who represent you so faithfully in Washington, D.C. are about to know that you want to make a difference.
If there hasn’t been an issue you’re passionate about in the past, chances are you haven’t been paying attention. Start paying attention. Know what is going on in our country and the government. What bills are being introduced? What’s coming up for a vote? At the very least, watch the news every now and then. You’ll likely find there are a few issues that get you fired up.
Next, it’s important to know the difference between local, state and federal issues. If the issue you want to take action on falls under the federal jurisdiction, then you’ll want to contact your congressman or senator. After working in a congressional office for several years dealing with constituent services, I learned a thing or two about the most effective way to get your voice heard (hint: it doesn’t involve posting rants on Facebook).
Here are a few tips:
- Email is the easy way out. A few clicks and you’re done. It’s so simple. You’ve now effectively done your part, right? Wrong. If you want your voice to really be heard, this might not be the right method. On a good, slow day your email might get a quick glance. A legislative correspondent (those are the congressional staffers who receive and respond to your emails) will likely skim over it to be sure of the subject matter and file it away into an electronic database where millions of emails reside. On a busy day, however, emails often pour in by the thousands. Congressional staff is limited. Your email is most likely not going to get read. Sorry about that, but the manpower is just not there. Many congressional offices have software in place to automatically scan incoming email for key words. Once it finds those key words, it’s once again filed away by subject matter so that an appropriate form letter can be sent. So, if all you care about is getting a form letter in return, go for it.
- Phone calls are usually more effective than letter writing/emailing. Here’s why: Do you want a generic form letter sent back in response to your email/letter, with no guarantee that anyone with any authority even saw it, or would you like to speak with an actual person in real time? Keep in mind that the staffers who answer the phone are more than likely either interns or staffers at the bottom of the food chain (though, when Andrea worked for Senator Pat Roberts, he would often answer phones when he had a few spare minutes. That’s how you know you’ve got an elected official who cares). But in a congressional office, every staff member plays a huge role and will pass important messages to the higher-ups. At my office, when an issue was hot, our Chief of Staff called me at least once or twice a day to ask about phone calls and what constituents were saying. She then passed on those main messages to the congressman. If you really care about an issue, get your friends to call, too. Many voices are more powerful than one. It may not always be easy to get through. Remember, there are only so many people who answer the phones in any office and a limited number of phone lines. But be persistent if it’s important to you.
- Send your letter to the district office nearest you (if you can’t muster a phone call). “But the D.C. office is where all the action happens,” you may think. While true that the less glamorous stuff happens in the district office, consider this: thanks to the anthrax scare several years back, mail going into any congressional office building undergoes days worth of heavy security screenings at an offsite facility. Your letter could take up to two weeks to reach your congressional office in Washington. Mail to district offices, however, goes through no such screening. Also, and this is purely opinion based on experience, the district offices are less frenzied and hectic paced. They’re more likely to handle your inquiries with a little more care.
- Can you visit an office in person? Absolutely. But be realistic. You can’t waltz in there with an expectation that the congressman will see you now. It’s more likely that you will meet with a staffer instead. Be considerate and call ahead and make an appointment. If you just want to voice concerns, attend a town hall meeting or meet with a senior staffer. Be respectful of demands and time restraints on your congressional office. Yes, you are a constituent and you matter, but you are literally a very small percentage of the other hundreds of thousands they represent. Be realistic.
- Be respectful. No matter which way you choose to contact your congressional office, use your manners. Sure, you’re allowed to say exactly what you feel but use common courtesy. I was always more likely to pass on messages or phone calls to more senior staff when the constituents were respectful and polite and well spoken. Going off on a rant or calling the congressman (or the staffer) horrible names gets you no where. Treating them like dirt may get you pushed to the bottom of the pile. Trust me. One afternoon while the other congressional staffers in my office were on a lunch break, in marched an older couple who didn’t even bother to say hello. With scowls on their faces and looking like they were ready to attack, they pounced right over to my desk and proceeded to yell at me and demand to know where the other staffers were. I was the youngest in the office (and looked even younger than I actually was) so they automatically assumed I was unqualified to help them and were anything but polite. I was completely flustered and immediately resentful of being treated so poorly. If they would have calmed down and acted civilized, I would have gladly assisted them with their issue. Instead, they displayed manners that resembled a spoiled child and I made them wait. A staffer eventually met with them. But after their embarrassing behavior, do you think we were eager to help them at that point? Staffers dread meetings with those kinds of people. They avoid it when they can. However, if you are polite to them, they’ll work their tail off for you. Ironically, after getting the cranky couple’s address for a form that was needed, we realized they weren’t even in our congressional district. We eagerly passed them off to the appropriate office and gave them a fair warning. So, back to my initial message: know who your representative is, and always, always be respectful.
- Think outside the box. Is there an event happening in your town that you think your representative should attend? My congressman in Knoxville loved to be invited to Boy Scout ceremonies for Eagle Scout recipients. He attended every one that he could and often stayed afterward to talk with the families and church leaders. Is your school or church doing some amazing service projects or work in your community and you think your representative or senator should know? Send them an invitation or give them a call to inquire. It doesn’t hurt to try. They ran for Congress for a reason. They care about issues. Challenge them to show you that they care about their constituents as well by inviting them to an event. Chances are if their schedule allows, and the issue is important to them, they’ll gladly accept your invitation.
Talking to kids: Think your kids are too young to care what a congressman is and what they do? Think again. The sooner they know, the better off they’ll be. Recent polls have shown that the same people who know their congressman’s names are the same people who get out to vote (and by and large, they’re also more educated). So, discuss with your kids why we have a Congress. They’ll grow up to be better, more active citizens. And, you never know, they might end up running for Congress one day.
So, now that you know who your congressional leaders are and the most effective ways to communicate with them, it’s time to get to work. Making a difference all starts with one person. Why not you?
Former White House and Capitol Hill staffer, wife, and mom.