For many years I sat at my desk on Capitol Hill answering constituent letters and placing appointments and meetings on the calendars of United States Senators and Committees.
Throughout that time, I was impressed at how many people wanted to engage their representatives and the ways they contacted our offices. Here are some tips that will help you either get assistance to a problem, a response to an inquiry, and even a face-to-face meeting with your own Senator, Representative, or their staff.
Learning how to contact your Congressman and Senators isn't that hard, and to begin, there are three simple "rules" you should adhere to whenever making contact with any Member of Congress (MoC) or their staff. Most staffers consider these unwritten rules to be non-negotiable and following them is the key to opening the doors and keeping them open. Remember, you are trying to build a long-term relationship and bridges between you, your organization, your elected representatives and the issues you care about.
- Be respectful and professional at all times. Always use proper titles, formal language, and never vent frustrations with personal attacks, vulgarities, or threats.
- Be brief. Whether you are making a phone call, sending a letter, or typing an email, you should understand that staffers are very busy people. While your opinion is important, it is very likely that there are thousands of other people who are also contacting them.
- Be prepared. Know the details and specifics of the issues you are contacting your MoC about. The more prepared and knowledgeable you are, the more they will consider your opinion. Furthermore, by researching the MoC's position on certain issues, you will be better equipped to develop strategies and provide counter information to overcome it if it is in opposition to yours.
Now that you know the rules, it is possible to take a look at how to contact your Congressman, Senators, and their staff.
Email is, by far, the fastest, easiest, and most efficient method for getting written communication into your MoC's office. Once an email is received, it is logged and routed to the appropriate staffer who specializes in that particular issue. In most cases, this person will be a Legislative Correspondent who will read your message and then send you a response after conferring with the Senator or Representative. Furthermore, your email will be tracked for response time.
In the case of most congressional offices, staffers strive to respond to email correspondence within two to three weeks.
** Keep in mind that when sending attachments with your emails you should make sure they are compressed, and better still, simply insert them into the body of the email whenever possible.
The sending of snail mail is opposed. Since 2001, hard copy mail goes to a special facility for processing. This process can take up to two weeks and delays the response time considerably. As with email, once it is received by the office it is logged, routed, and tracked. However, having thousands of letters taking up space on a desk is not something most staffers find terribly pleasant. Most are Type A personalities and stacks of letters can make them a little cranky. Furthermore, hard copy mail is easier to lose, misplace, or misfile than email.
When calling a MoC's office, your first contact will almost always go through the main office number. Staff Assistants or interns usually operate these phones. While these staff members are quite capable, they are usually not experts in specific issues. As such, you should always follow the script below for your initial contact:
- "Hello, my name is John or Jane Smith and I'm calling from ABC organization in PDQ state regarding XYZ issue.
- Would it be possible to speak with or leave a message for Senator/Representative_______'s Legislative Aide or Legislative Correspondent who specializes in this issue?
Usually, you will need to leave a message for the appropriate staffer. Always follow proper message protocols when doing this:
Leave your name, your number, your reason for calling, and close it with a request that they call you back.
Finally, here is one final "How to contact your Congressman" tip that is very important:
- Whenever possible, make your calls, send your emails, and schedule your meetings for times when Congress is NOT in session and actively debating legislation. Mondays, Friday afternoons, the day immediately after any holiday, the month of August, and the week after Christmas are the worst times for you to try to make contact. That's because these times are reserved for staff and congressional meetings, the MoC's travel to DC, staff vacations, special projects, field hearings, campaign work, and other non-legislative issues.
Now that you know how to contact your Congressman, Senators, and their staff, well… the rest is up to you.
Member engagement software, like Votility, is a very useful tool for both you and your organization’s leadership. It increases your effectiveness, tracks all action by your members and the results can be measured. If everyone has the same data, at roughly the same time, that’s a very good thing for your advocacy efforts and getting a positive result on the issues you care about.