Do Emails and Letters to Congress Work?
The short answer to this rhetorical question is yes, but the results of your communications vary widely depending on the member of Congress and how the letters, emails, and faxes are written.Members of Congress collectively receive more than 200 million emails and letters every year. Representatives have, on average, about four staff people handling constituent communications, while senators often have more.
Before email, most offices heard from about 2 percent of their constituents. Now the figure is closer to 4 percent to 5 percent. The challenge for each office is how to deal with the increased volume of communication in an efficient and meaningful manner.
Offices have different systems for managing communications from the people in the district who elect them. In most cases communications are routed to Washington, where a team of staff people open the mail and email, categorize the correspondence, and make decisions about what to do next.
Individual Letters Work
What we at FCNL hear from most congressional offices is that they give higher priority to individualized communications from people who have a specific request, say something about themselves, write in their own voice, and make a local connection.
Sorting through this mass of communications can be difficult. “We hope to spend about as much time answering your communication as you spend sending it to us,” one congressional staffer explained to FCNL recently.
The same staff member confirmed that for every letter or email the office receives from an individual who provides his or her name, address, and other identifying information, the staff in that office add the position on that issue to a tally sheet. each week, the chief of staff for that representative calls a “mail meeting” where senior staff discuss what the member of Congress is hearing from constituents and pass on a summary to the elected representative.
This anecdotal data from one staff person tracks with what was reported in the last comprehensive survey of congressional offices. Individualized letters, emails, and faxes received a lot of attention. Form letters that look like the individual simply clicked “send” on a pre-written letter receive less attention. But the congressional survey found that 63 percent of congressional offices said that even a form email—that is one that is not edited at all to insert individual content—has “some influence” on their member of Congress.
Write About Yourself
When you write a letter, think about whether this is an issue that is already on the agenda for your senator or representative. We at FCNL believe letters should be focused, polite, and should ask for one specific action.
Remember to say something about yourself. Several congressional staff with whom FCNL have talked said that adding a few sentences describing where you live, where your children go to school, how long you have lived in your community, or what groups
you are a part of can make a difference in how your communication is handled.
Some offices put a high priority on hand-written letters, while others look for signs that the individual has a strong grounding in the community. Sending a message by postal mail can take between one and three weeks to arrive (because all mail is screened out-of-state before being sent to Washington), but some congressional offices still place more value on postal mail. Other offices prefer email. Most offices accept communications both in Washington and at their state offices.
FCNL recommends that you build a relationship with your representative and two senators over time. Asking questions, sending in letters, and arranging face-to-face visits with staff or the member of Congress when possible are all part of this dialogue.
For more information, see FCNL's “Communicating With Congress: How to Make Your Voice Heard in Washington” (PDF).
Arranging a Meeting with Your Member of Congress
While scheduling a meeting with your member of Congress may seem daunting, it is easier than you think. Here are a few suggestions to ease the process of organizing a visit.
While you may choose to lobby by yourself, inviting two or three others from different backgrounds, such as educators, business people, and representatives of different ethnic and faith-based groups, will show broader concern for your issue.
A meeting can be arranged in your legislator’s district office when she or he is back home or in Washington. Call the member’s local or Washington office and ask for the scheduler’s name and contact information. Submit a written request of no more than a page and include the following:
- The purpose of your meeting: state the issue and specific bill (if possible) that you would like to talk about.
- Names and background of people in the group.
- When and where you propose to meet: include several possible meeting times, with exact days and times.
Fax or email your request to the scheduler and follow up the next day with a phone call to ensure that the request was received. After two or three days, call the office again.
Remember, even if you cannot arrange an appointment directly with your member of Congress, meeting with a staff assistant is still important as it builds a valuable relationship.