How To Communicate With Public Officials 

There are eight basic methods for keeping in touch with Representatives and Senators. They include personal visits, personal letters, phone calls, faxes, e-mail, telegrams, petitions and form letters.

Among these, form letters – often sent out by Washington, DC bulk direct mail operators – are the least effective. They are perhaps better than nothing, but they do not communicate to the congressman any great commitment on your part, nor do they give any indication that you are especially well informed. In most cases, the congressman and his staff will conclude that you are just acting at the behest of some organization inside the Washington, DC beltway, and that you may not be very firm in your views. Most congressional offices do keep track of such correspondence, but weigh them much less than personalized letters.

Telephone calls establish a more personal rapport than do letters, although congressman and their aides realize that picking up a telephone takes little effort compared with sitting down and writing out a thoughtful letter. Telephone calls have one benefit over mailed letters in that they can be made in a timely manner; postal letters often cannot. But because many people who have lots of time on their hands call their congressman’s office on a regular basis, a telephone call will weigh somewhat less than a thoughtful letter. This is especially the case if you are not able to speak directly with the congressman or don’t have a strong relationship with one of the top aides. Telephone calls are generally more effective when they are kept brief and to the point. All congressional offices in Washington may be reached through the Capitol switchboard at 202-224-3121. Local offices are listed in your telephone directory. In addition, you can telephone the White House to express your opinion at 202-456-7639.

Personal visits establish the best personal rapport among the methods of communicating with your congressman. Most congressional offices try to accommodate constituent requests for an appointment with the congressman. Most people, however, rarely have more than a minute or two to sum up their concerns, and occasionally can not get any one-on-one time at all. Preparation for a face-to-face visit with your congressman is essential. While this can be a highly effective means of communicating with your congressman, it is not always available, and is usually not available to most constituents at the time they most need to influence their congressmen (when important votes are imminent).

Telegrams emphasize your concern about an issue and the urgency of your message. Western Union offers telegram service and allows constituents to send either Opinion-grams (normally 20 words or less) or Mail-Grams (up to 50 words). These messages can be sent to individual representatives or senators, or they can be (at a higher cost) sent to groups of these officials. Sending a telegram is becoming a less common form of communication with congressman, but these written forms of communication are still timely and usually more effective than form letters and phone calls.

Petitions are another effective way to influence elected officials. Although a petition with 20 signatures does not weigh nearly as heavily with a congressional staff as does 20 personal letters, a large petition effort is a powerful means of communicating public opinion on a subject. Petitions also communicate that support for a particular position is organized back in the district.

Personal letters are the most common form of correspondence with a congressman, and the most powerful. Congressmen and their office staff realize it takes time to write out a thoughtful letter, put a stamp on it, and put it in the mail. This form of communication is weighed most heavily by the Washington DC staff and your congressman. We will return in a moment to list a number of tips which will enhance their effectiveness. (Of course, if you can say all you want to say on a personal postcard, by all means use one.)

Faxed letters can be as effective – and more timely – than mailed letters. Like mailed letters, faxes are more powerful if they are personalized and well-written. You can obtain the fax numbers of the officials that represent you by calling their offices. Be sure to include your postal address in your letter, so that the congressman will know that you reside in his district and so that he will have the option to respond through the mail.

Electronic letters (E-Mail) are increasingly effective and as public officials become accustomed to using the Internet they will soon be as effective – and more timely – than hand-written letters. Be sure that your letter is well-written, as you would with a mailed letter, since the Internet is full of semi-literate rantings masquerading as letters. It is essential that you include your postal address in your letter, so that the congressman will know that you reside in his district and so that he will have the option to respond through the mail.

 How to write an effective letter

To increase the impact of your letters, write legibly or use a computer or typewriter, and include your name and address so your congressman can respond. Additionally, limit them to one page and a single topic. In general, letters should be three short paragraphs. The first paragraph should state that you support/oppose a piece of legislation. The second should explain (briefly) why you take the position that you do. The third paragraph should ask the congressman to write back explaining his position on the legislation. Avoid exaggeration and, when appropriate, document your position with an accompanying article or editorial.

Be firm in stating your views, but also be considerate by avoiding name-calling, threats, etc. Instead, try to be reasonable, factual, and friendly. Even when you disagree with your two senators and your representative on most issues, be sure to commend them when they do something right. It will establish that you are fair and will encourage them to pay closer attention to subsequent complaints about their performance.

Whenever possible, refer to bills and resolutions by number. It will help your congressman to determine exactly which measure you are interested in and will promote the impression that you know what you are talking about.

Write your letters on company letterhead if you are a small business owner, or if you are explicitly allowed to use company letterhead by the company which employs you. Letters on company letterhead often credential you as a community leader or give you professional prominence, and these are often weighed more heavily in Washington.

It is usually a good idea to follow-up your congressman’s response (or lack thereof) with another brief letter, regardless of the position he/she takes. If the congressman agrees with you, send a one or two sentence letter of thanks for his stand in favor of limited, constitutional government. If the congressman disagrees with your position, reply with a brief letter quoting the section of his letter with which you take issue and restate your position.

Elected officials listen most intently to letters from voters in their districts, and hardly listen at all to voices from outside of their districts. In most cases, it is not worth the trouble to write to officials who do not represent your state and district. The majority of congressional offices automatically forward non-constituent letters to the congressional office representing the letter-writer. There are a few notable exceptions to the above rule, however. Elected officials who are likely to seek higher office (probably a majority) will listen to voters outside of their district, although to a lesser degree than someone writing from the district they already represent. One other exception is writing to elected officials who enjoy an appointment of national interest, such as a committee chairman or political party leadership position. Because they are charged with a national office, and hold the office at the pleasure of their colleagues in the legislature, they will pay attention to letters from outside of their nominal district if the letters are related to their national office. For example, Senators who sit on the Foreign Relations Committee are likely to weigh letters on the UN Biodiversity convention if the committee is about to start hearings on the global treaty. Conversely, members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are not likely to read non-constituent letters on welfare reform. Keep in mind, however, that congressmen generally pay closer attention to letters from their constituents.

Your letters to members of the Congress or to the President may be addressed this way:

The President Any U.S. Senator Any U.S. Representative
The President of the United States
The White House
Washington, D.C. 20500

Dear Mr. President:

The Honorable ________
Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510

Dear Senator _______:

The Honorable ________
House Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20515

Dear Mr. _______:

The same addresses are appropriate when writing to the House or Senate Committees.