Writing to Congress: How to Make a Difference

Congress is literally drowning in a sea of correspondence. One recent survey of congressional offices found that the number of letters, emails, and faxes sent to Congress has increased by 500 percent in the last decade, while the number of staff in these offices has remained the same.

Members of Congress receive an estimated 200 million messages a year, with fully 180 million of those messages as email. In this context, what’s the best way to communicate with your elected officials?

Influences on Congressional Decision-Making

Source: Congressional Management Foundation, Communicating with Congress 2005. Based on a survey of 350 Congressional staff in 202 offices

Long Term Relationship-Building Is Key

No one mechanism for communicating with Congress will work with every member; all of the offices are different and treat letters, emails, and requests in different ways.

But, in six decades working on the Hill, FCNL has found that the best strategy for lobbying Congress is to build a relationship over time with your representative and two senators. This long-term process includes letters, emails, phone calls, visits, and a willingness to engage your elected representatives (and their staff) in a dialog, especially when you think they won’t agree with you.

Writing letters, emails, or faxes that express your concerns is still considered one of the best mechanisms for persuading members of Congress to act. Even if they are overwhelmed, members of Congress welcome these constituent messages and see them as a positive development for the country.

Consider using these “tips” on writing to Congress.

  • Email works: “A large majority of congressional staff surveyed, 79%, believe the Internet has made it easier for citizens to become involved in public policy,” the Congressional Management Foundation reported in a recent study on how Capitol Hill is responding to the surge in communications. Congressional staff believe email has increased public understanding of what happens in Washington, made members of Congress more responsive to their constituents, and influences the decisions of members of Congress
  • Personalize your messages: Struggling to deal with this surge in communications, staff say they pay more attention to personalized messages that don’t look like you copied verbatim from a form letter. It’s best to include one or two sentences in a message about yourself, the neighborhood you live in, and the types of organizations, associations you belong to in the community.
  • Focus on one issue: Keep your letters or emails short and focused on one issue. Personal stories of how you, people you know, or people you have spoken with are affected by government policies add to the effectiveness of your communications. FCNL also believes that messages that attempt to persuade, rather than demand, are more likely to be heard.
  • Include a specific ask: Communications that make a specific request for congressional action (including a bill number, if available) often have more impact than those that express only a generalized concern. Asking your senators to support nuclear disarmament is not as effective as writing to say don’t vote for the new, nuclear bunker buster weapons that would undermine nuclear disarmament efforts.

Members of Congress want to hear from their constituents. Building a reputation for sending thoughtful, focused communications builds a relationship with your legislator and improves your lobbying in the long term.

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