Communicating With Your Legislators

The letter is the most popular choice of communication with a congressional office. When writing a letter the following suggestions will improve the effectiveness: 1) State your purpose in the first paragraph. If the letter pertains to a specific piece of legislation, identify it accordingly, e.g., House bill: H.R.____, Senate bill: S. ____. 2) Be courteous and to the point. Include key information, using examples to support your position, 3) Address only one issue in each letter; and if possible keep the letter to one page, 4) Use your own stationery, not hospital or agency stationery. Do not give the impression that you are speaking for an organization unless you are a designated spokesperson, 5) Know the committees on which your legislators serve and indicate in the letter if the bill is being brought before those committees, 6) Timing is important. Try to express your opinion on a bill when it is in committee, 7) Sign your name with RN after it. Be sure your correct address is on the letter and the envelope.

Writing a Powerful Letter

To write an effective letter that will influence your reader, apply the following guidelines:

  1. Identify your audience. Consider what you know about the individual and the organization they work in to construct a message they will understand.
  2. Obtain the correct name, title and address of the person you plan to contact. In the current climate of reorganization, personnel and titles change frequently. Make a telephone call to verify personal information. No one likes to receive mail with his or her name misspelled, and an inaccurate address could lead to your letter being returned.
  3. Plan the content of your letter. You can draft a letter by using these steps:
    • Identify the main purpose of the letter. Carefully identify what you are trying to accomplish. The purpose needs to be clear. Are you writing to express an opinion? Are you identifying a problem and suggesting a possible solution? Do you want help or are you asking for a meeting? What do you want the recipient to do?
    • Include specific details that help to convey your message. Make a list of the details to include in your letter, write them down and organize them in groups. Determine which details are essential and discard the ones that are not.
    • Plan a logical order for the information you wish to convey. Organize your main points into separate paragraphs that proceed in a logical manner. Each paragraph should have a topic sentence (the main point of the paragraph) and several supporting sentences that help to describe or explain the point conveyed in the topic sentence. Each paragraph should lead into the next and all paragraphs should support your main point. Your closing and opening sentences are especially important as they are the most likely to be remembered.
    • Write the "call to action" with great care. A successful call to action states exactly what you want the reader to do.
    • Edit carefully. Invite a friend to read your letter and provide comments. Read your letter aloud and listen to the flow, grammar and tone. Re-edit your letter.
    • Keep a copy of all letters that you send.

* You can obtain your legislator's name and address from the congressional directory listing at http://thomas.loc.gov/

* Address your letter as follows:

President of the United States:
The Honorable (full name)

The White House
Washington, DC 20500

Dear Mr. President or Madam President:
Governor:

The Honorable (full name)
State Capital
(Capital Address)

Dear Governor (last name):
Members of the U.S. Senate:

The Honorable (full name)
United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510

Dear Senator (last name):
Members of the House of Representatives:

The Honorable (full name)
United States House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515

Dear Congressman or Congresswoman (last name):
Members of your State Senate:

The Honorable (full name)
(State) Senate
(Office Address)

Dear Senator:
Members of your State House of Representatives (or Delegates):
The Honorable (full name)
(State) House of Representatives (Delegates) (Office Address)

Dear Representative or Delegate (last name):

*You can find out the mailing addresses of your governor and state legislators by calling your State Capital.

Sending E-Mail to Congress

Many members of Congress have an e-mail address that ends in house.gov or senate.gov. The body of your message should use the following format:

Your name
Address
City, State, ZIP

Dear (title) (last name):

Start your message here.

Although many members have e-mail addresses, most only respond to their own constituents' messages with an acknowledgement of receipt and you should remember that this is not a preferred means of communication.

Phoning Your Congressman

Telephone calls can be an effective means of communicating as a follow-up to a letter or visit. Calls can be placed to a legislator's Washington, DC office or to a local district office. Calls to a local office may result in delay of your message getting to a federal or state legislator or becoming part of a tally sheet listing calls "for" or "against" an issue. When calling your legislator's office, be sure to specify the issue about which you are calling so that you are directed to the appropriate staff person. In general, telephone calls should be used to deliver a brief, concise message or to request specific information. When calling be sure to do the following:

  • Clearly identify yourself and your issue.
  • If you know a staff member, ask for that person.
  • Briefly state what you want the legislator to do, and refer to previous correspondence you may have had with the legislator.
  • Ask the legislator's staff to respond to your request and to update you on the outcome of the issue.
  • Make a note of the name of the person you spoke with and direct your future communication to this person.

Personal Visits With Your Congressmen and Senators

Your congressmen and senators have endless demands on their time. Don't be disappointed if your senator or congressman is unavailable at the last minute, in which case you would meet with a staff member. You should respect your elected officials but do not be intimidated by them. They respect you as one of their constituents.

  • Be polite. Explain your position and inform your congressman or senator, but do not attack.
  • Be organized. Have brief (one or two-page) written material available. It should state the issue, your position and requested action.
  • Be prepared and concise. Do not spend too much time with informal chatting.
  • Follow up your visit with a thank you note to the congressman and staff you met with. Restate your position and requested action in the note.

How a Congressman's Office Operates

A congressional office staff usually consists of an administrative assistant or chief of staff, several legislative assistants (including a legislative director), a personal scheduler, a press secretary, several legislative correspondents to respond to the mail, and various other staff. Your primary contacts will be the legislative assistants, one of whom handles health affairs. Legislative assistants monitor legislation, advise the congressman, address constituent concerns, research issues for the member, etc.

While a congressman or senator does not usually personally see every incoming letter, he or she or the chief of staff has reviewed the response that was drafted in response to a particular issue. Senators receive more than 1,000 pieces of mail per week, but it is important to note that individual letters, whether from an individual constituent or from a grassroots organization, carry far more weight than a form letter or postcard campaign.

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