How To Write To Congress

Writing to Congress is the single best way to express your view on public policy. The average consumer has a surprising ability to influence legislation by crafting a well written missive. Let’s find out what the common mistakes to avoid are, how the process works, and the best ways to ensure your letter has the greatest impact.

Why Personal Letters Beat Form Letters
Don’t get suckered in by the quick and easy “Write to Congress!” form letters littering the internet. Form letters are not an expression of values; they are a show of organizational strength. If the NRA convinces five million people to send letters opposing gun control, it shows that the NRA can muster five million people to action, not that five million people necessarily care about gun laws. Congressional offices know this and generally disregard form letters.

So what happens when you send a letter?

Every office has its own procedures for tabulating constituent correspondence, but most will produce a report at the end of week breaking down how many letters were received by issue area, separating out form letters from letters sent by individual constituents.

Members treat each type of letter differently, but most look for individual letters as a barometer of their district’s concerns. These are the letters that have the most influence, the ones we will show you how to write.

What Should Your Letter Say?
We adhere to the three paragraph rule: introduce yourself, introduce your issue, request action. Congressional offices have staffers whose days are spent solely on the mail, so make their lives easier by keeping letter succinct and to the point.

  • Introduce Yourself: There is a two-prong test for determining your worth: 1) Are you a constituent? 2) Are you an important constituent? Feel free to puff up your chest. Are you a lifelong member of the district? Are you associated with community groups? Say so! Convince the reader that yours is a voice of experience and wisdom.
  • Be specific: Don’t just ask a Member to oppose mandatory binding arbitration agreements. Ask them to rush to the floor to support S.1782, The Arbitration Fairness Act of 2007.
  • Marshall Facts: Your argument—and you are making an argument—must be supported by facts. Feel free to use facts gleaned from us or other sources, but don’t copy and paste paragraphs of pre-written text from form letters. Personal experiences are particularly effective, and often moving. Share them!
  • Be Exceedingly Polite, Please: Congress attracts haughty personalities. Staffers don’t appreciate being spoken down to or insulted. You are trying to rally them to your cause, so be nice.
  • Clearly State Your Request: Plainly tell your representative that you want them to support or oppose a certain bill. If you want a response, explicitly (but politely) ask for one.

It should go without saying that your letter should follow all formal style guidelines, such as a return name and address, and should be free of spelling and grammatical errors.

Send Your Letter To The Right Place
Only write to your representatives. You have three: one Representative in the House, and two Senators. Do not send more than three letters. Some citizens try to get their voice heard by writing to all 435 members of the House. Congressional courtesy compels the 434 Members who do not represent the zealot to forward his letter to the one lucky Member who does. This angers the Member’s staff greatly at the expense of any point you are trying to make.

The addresses for your Representatives and Senators are available online, but don’t waste your time with an email. Letters carry significantly more weight. Send your letter to the Capitol, where the legislative staff is based, though it will take a while to arrive since all incoming Congressional mail is irradiated thanks to those still-unidentified Anthrax mailers.

For an even greater impact, send your letter care of the staffer covering the issue. These staffers – called Legislative Assistants – are the Member’s eyes and ears on their assigned issue areas. Finding the staffer destined to read your letter is easy: call the Capitol switchboard (open 24 hours a day!) at (202) 224-3121, ask for your Member’s office, and ask the person who answers for the name of the staffer handling the issue area or bill number. Once you get that name, address your letter like this:

Member Of Congress
c/o Staffer
Office Building/Number
Washington, DC 20515

What Should You Expect In Return?
It depends. There are 535 Congressional offices and each handles constituent correspondence differently. The vast majority respond to letters with either a form letter pre-written by a Legislative Assistant, or with a more personal response written by a Legislative Correspondent. Controversial issues that attract many letters normally receive a form letter response, while smaller issues or specific questions often receive the attention of a personalized response.

Conclusion
Members of Congress work for you. Without your votes, they won’t stay in office. They go to great lengths to cultivate a positive relationship with you, their boss. Very few people take the time to write to a Member of Congress, so the few that do carry a disproportionate influence.

Fifteen minutes is well worth the time to influence a $2 trillion enterprise.

(Photo: indi.ca)

Comments

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  1. Anonymous says:

    I’ve used all these tips and have been very suprised with the responses I get. When I first started writing to my senators I expected form replies, but I have found that the more specific I make my letter the more specific the response is.

    In response to a query about DOD purchasing priorities one senator sent me a long bullet point list about how purchases are made and why a certain piece of equipment will not be available for several years. It was so detailed that either the staffer was already very familiar with the subject, or did some serious research on it.

    I have used the online email forms, typed letters, and hand written letters and have not noticed a difference in responses. I think the content of your message carries much more weight than the medium.

    • yasth says:

      @rollinghills: I too have found little to no difference in emails vs. letters.

      Also it helps to know your senator/rep’s position before hand. There is (usually) no need to brow beat the co-signer of the bill into supporting it.

  2. Caswell says:

    I prefer to call their offices and put their staffers on the spot. It’s great fun, especially when you stick to the facts, are polite, but still manage to nail them to the wall.

    In Florida we’ve got two pro-amnesty for illegals senators, one who’s afriad to admit it (Nelson) and the other who’s breaking an explicit campaign promise (Martinez). I’ve had tons-o-fun grilling their offices on the issue and the senator’s cowardice / hypocrisy.

  3. lyndyn29 says:

    Only write to your representatives. You have three: one Representative in the House, and two Senators. Do not send more than three letters.

    Exception: I have been known to send a mailing to either the leaders of or all members of a committee when I have a compelling argument for “this should die in committee.” I’ve also once or twice written specifically to a legislator who I know has a personal interest in an issue, with the intention that his/her office forward it to my own rep with a “hey, we’re getting noises about this from your district” note. These targeted mailings have several times provoked positive and thoughtful responses from their recipients.

    If you’re writing to someone who doesn’t represent you, the key is to state clearly within the first sentence or two why you are writing to “YOU, specifically, Mr. Senator,” not random-congresscritter. And yes, it should be a limited and measured tactic.

    • Meggers says:

      @lyndyn29: Agreed. You can send a letter or make a call to people who are not your congressmen but it really is important to state why you are calling them (in a addition to your actual congressmen).

  4. Trai_Dep says:

    Sending a letter opposite to the one you want, in an envelope packed with talcam powder, adds zest and excitement to the Congressional staffer’s day!

    (use your college roommate – the one that ate all your cheese – as the return address)

    (JOKING, children. Jeez.)

  5. ju-ju-eyeball says:

    Be Exceedingly Polite, Please: Congress attracts haughty personalities. They don’t appreciate being spoken down to or insulted. You are trying to rally them to your cause, so be nice!

    Of course, it is not like he works for ME or anything. Now that he is in congress, treat him like royalty, because they think they are…

    • humphrmi says:

      @ju-ju-eyeball: Well actually the staffer who reads, tallies, reports, and sometimes responds to your letter doesn’t work for you, and an impolite letter will never make it to your Congressperson’s desk.

      Like in business, you attract more bees with honey than vinegar.

  6. Anonymous says:

    As a congressional staffer, I’d say you should just call. Even if you address the letter to the LA, it will likely be passed off to an intern or an LC (legislative correspondent). Writing to constituents is not fun, and most offices have people that do it all day long.

    More than likely, an intern will pick up. DO NOT just start rambling about whatever issue you want to gripe about. This signals the person who answered that you are crazy, and should not be speaking to a staff member. They are very busy, and no one is going to pass a crazy person off to their boss. The intern will know to either say “We’ll pass that on for you” (which he will not), or say “I’ve made a note and I’ll deliver it to the congressman” (again, he will not). Interns don’t know anything, nor do they have the power to do anything.

    Instead, simply say your full name and ask whoever is on the phone to speak with the LA who handles the issue about which you are concerned. Be calm, be stern. If you speak to the LA, don’t just start off with “I have some opinions I’d like you to know; here they are!” Instead, ask questions! Ask what the congressman’s positions are on the issues. Ask why. Explain your own position. Finally, ask if there is any other information the staffer might need.

    You might be passed off to voice mail. Do NOT give your opinions here. Simply say that you have some concerns about a certain issue, and that you would like a call back.

    Most offices have daily callers and letter writers who leave incoherent notes and messages about anything from UFOs to mexican truck drivers. Your goal should be to separate yourself from this crowd.

    Do this, and be rational, and you just might make a difference.

    • tenio says:

      @SMW333: good advice! you really have to be dedicated to the issue though.

    • cjones27 says:

      @SMW333: Mexican truck drivers! I remember that one. People were pretty pissed.

      I worked as an intern last fall for a Senator. Basically we’d ask what the issue was, what your opinion was, and log it in a database. Most of the time people were rude and just forced their opinion on you. Not the way to go.

      We were always told what the senator’s position on issues were, but whenever people would start inquiring further and pressing us, we were told to transfer them to a staff or legislative assistant. That’s where you can actually make some progress.

      One thing I don’t recommend – setting up a phone in a public place and having people call nonstop from it to complain about an issue. If we get more than a few calls from the same number in a short time span, it really pisses people off.

      And if you want to make a difference, don’t call in drunk. Believe me, it happens. It’s quite entertaining for us, but we never take it seriously.

  7. zolielo says:

    Mention pass dealings, any reciprocity, and expectation of a timely response.

  8. calldrdave says:

    Having worked in a Congressional office in the past, you’ll get a *better* impact calling the local office. DC staff have 1001 priorities, local staff is responsible for reporting on “what the people back home think” 10 letters to the local office probably equal 1000 to DC. DC letters tend to be tallied: 50 for the issue 30 against.

    Wanna really make an impact. Get your letter to the editor published in the local paper and then send it to the Congressional office in the district. That says you have a strong opinion and will use it to influence others.

    Of course, I worked for a Democrat. I think Republicans they don’t look for the number of letters regarding an issue but rather the number of zeros on the check.

    • Trai_Dep says:

      @calldrdave: Oh no, you didn’t… :D
      What do you and SWM333 feel about the calls vs letters issue, and calls to the local office vs the DC one?
      Sometimes, things move too quickly (the $trillion Wall Street corporate welfare act comes to mind) for letters, or at least that’s my impression. What to do in these situations?

  9. Buran says:

    Yeah, like they care about what you want when the RIAA is handing them lots more money than you are. Screw the little people, we want you to protect us.

    (yes, I still write asking for support of my middle/lect views, but I’ve noticed that my red-party senator/reps do nothing to help me, even though I never vote for them)

  10. Sudonum says:

    I wrote an e-mail to one of my senators, Mary Landreau, (@calldrdave: which office do they go to?) regarding the child health act that’s been in the news the last couple days. I explained how I was in support of child health care, but felt that the tax they were proposing on premium cigars was excessive. About a month later I received a very lengthy e-mail thanking me for my e-mail and explaining her position. And then further stating that the tax on cigars had been reduced to something I could live with. I was somewhat amazed that the response appeared to be personal. Wrote another one to my Rep regarding the act pending to rein in credit card fees. I got a generic form letter back.

  11. overbysara says:

    this is useful. thank you!

  12. tallcat601 says:

    I was a Congressional Intern for a few months. I can say pretty authoritatively that it is the interns, not the paid staff who answer most of the consituent letters and calls. Here’s the drill: the interns collect and organize the letters, enter it into the database system, format a response, get it approved, get it printed, stuff and send all the letters out. Rinse, lather, repeat.

    For national level issues, the staff only seem to view what has been entered into the database system, which they then use to judge consituent will.

    For local issues, like your grandma has been a consituent for 50 years and has stopped recieving her social security checks, they send to the district office for them to handle.

    Democracy at work guys.

  13. voodooKobra says:

    Thanks for this. I will refer to it the next time a school librarian preaches religion to me and gets away with it.

  14. countertop says:

    Comments are generally on point. Its best to call and speak with the staffer handling the issue – or even better email. Call the office and find out the name of the staffer. Email form is generally First Name_Last Name@senate.gov or house.gov

    Also, I’d take issue with your use of the NRA as an example. They are probably the exception to the rule you point out and the reason why is the NRA will actually get its people to the polls to vote. 5 million NRA members writing in generally indicates 30-40 million votes on the issue nationwide.

    The better example are probably environmental groups (NRDC, Sierra Club, Greenpeace) which inundates congressional offices with rantings form letters but can never really swing an election of show votes. Their problem, of course, is they have turned into purely partisan organizations on an issue which doesn’t drive people to the polls at the end of the day. The NRA, for all its problems, remains largely bi partisan (presidential elections aside, but i would expect them to endorse Bill Richardson over Guiliani or Romney if it came to that) that represents a huge constituency on a civil rights issue and actually drives people to the polls.

  15. mobilene says:

    @tallcat601: I used to work for Medicare and at least in our office, when we got those constituent complaints from the congressional office, they got bumped to the front of the line. We wanted to look ultra-responsive to the people who approved our funding.

  16. Elvisisdead says:

    @countertop: That e-mail format is wrong. fname.lname@mail.house.gov or fname.lname@mail.senate.gov. That format will not work for committee staffers. The format for those is the same, but sub the name of the committee for mail.

    As others have stated, if you need representation on an issue, call the district office. If you’re trying to influence an isue, DO NOT sent it to district staff. A) They aren’t equipped to play the big game that DC staff do. B) All they do is forward mail to DC. They puely do not handle policy – it’s not their job. That’s what the DC leg shop is for. Have a problem with the VA – District. SS check not show up – District. Want to comment on H.R. 237 and convince the rep to vote one way or the other – DC. District staff think the same about DC staff, but they are always wrong. Most DC staff at least have college degrees, as opposed to time on the campaign or a donor in the family.

    For the most part, it isn’t worth your time to write or call to express an opinion. It’s rare that they’ll form an opinion based upon constituent interest. If the member has a question about it, the first stop they make is to the Chief of Staff who can rattle off campaign contributions like they are baseball stats. They will weigh very heavily the input they get from the CoS and LD. Very lightly the input they get from you. If it’s intel or mil related, no input from you. Period.

    How do I know all this? My wife was an LA. My best friend is a chief of staff, and I’ve got more house.gov and senate.gov email adresses in my address book than anyone really should.

  17. Elvisisdead says:

    @mobilene: Nothing, and I mean NOTHING will move a Fed’s arse like a Congressional inquiry. Congresspeople are notoriously little people and like to display their power. Their staff plays the same game, and they LOVE to watch Feds squirm and wiggle to get answers.

  18. rdm24 says:

    Wonderfully written.

    I would add a few points:

    Even when you strongly disagree with a congressperson, write as though you were tryng to persuade him/her, not scold. (Which is why you should avoid phone calls if you feel particularly passionate about an issue.)

    Do write. Often. CC your local paper’s op-ed page.

    Even (especially?) when your rep is already on your side, call to let them know you support them. It will make them less likely to compromise on things you find important.

  19. zolielo says:

    @Elvisisdead: When a representative or senate office calls, I do move a lot quicker and like magic the problems are solved. :)

    Only at one post did my boss not alter the first in equals first out standard operating procedure. Nothing happened in terms of reprisals. But I did not like it. The dislike stemmed from not letting the consistency process work as seamlessly as I would like to believe it does; and hope that John Q. Public imagines it does. Call and elected official and the might of the government to the rescue… :(

  20. zolielo says:

    constituency

  21. Blueskylaw says:

    I sent a letter to my Congressman after a fiasco trip to Italy a few months ago, (I wanted to post it here, but it ran to four pages and I probably would have been flamed by readers for it’s length, but I had to get into details so they could see what I really went through) and I’m surprised to say it’s been very positive so far. It took about a month after writing it for me to get my first phone call from GSA, then a few weeks later I get a letter from my Congressman stating that they had contacted the Office of Aviation Consumer Protection about my problem and had gotten a preliminary response from them. I am now waiting for another response from as they get more info.
    What is surprising is that all the signatures on the letters appear to be hand signed, from the Congressman to the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Governmental Affairs of the U.S. Department of Transportation *exhale*, they appear to be taking it seriously.
    Though the wheels of government grind somewhat slowly, they do grind on, and if you have a real problem I would recommend writing to your Congressman. Just seeing a letter with no stamp on it is worth it.

  22. AboveTheFold says:

    I just finished a semester interning at a district office for the Senate. I second everything already said, and would emphasize that you be kind to the unpaid intern answering the phone. That doesn’t mean let her off the hook or give up, just be polite.

    Also, I had to type up every letter we received (retype the entire thing) and enter it into the system. There is no reason for a letter to be more than one page. I’m begging here.

  23. redhand32 says:

    There is an even better way of influencing your member of Congress than a letter. Be a well-connected Beltway lobbyist. You get your response lickity split. Even better if you are a lobbyist/former member of Congress. Money talks;BS walks.

  24. Trackback says:

    81% of Americans polled in a recent study commissioned by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce disapproved of mandatory binding arbitration.

  25. sir_pantsalot says:

    Two more things that will get some type of response.
    1)Make sure to write the letter on the letterhead of a major corporation.
    2)Personally hand the letter to the elected official at some private club that none of us could ever be allowed to join.

  26. silver-bolt says:

    Oh god. The Gawker Universe now adds blog pings to the comments? :O Do Now Want!

  27. RStewie says:

    What is that thing, and why is it here?

    Per the issue: does anyone know what the Wall Street Bailout Bill/Dealio is called? I want to call about that.

  28. oneandone says:

    Another great way to express your view on public policy: Comment on a proposed regulation or rule posted in the Federal Register. [www.regulations.gov]

    By law and executive order, every regulation that will be passed or altered by any federal agency has to be publicly posted for a comment period usually 30-90 days. Every significant comment (complete sentences & no profanity) receives a personal reply from someone in that agency. If they don’t address your comment and the regulation becomes final, courts can strike it down.

    I find it a lot more satisfying because 1)you can make specific and/or lengthy comments and know it will get read 2) it may have an impact on the final regulation 3) You get a reply.

    Downside: you can only share your thoughts on issues that are up for comment. You could probably petition an agency to address something, but that is tedious and as far as I know it’s just professional lobbyists who do that.

    Advice above for letters works well in public comments too.

    Go to [www.regulations.gov] and under ‘more search options’ you can browse all rules or documents with an open comment period, comment period closing today, etc. You can also search by agency or keyword.

  29. Ein2015 says:

    This just made me think of something… is there seriously not a website for people of different representatives’ districts to voice their opinions, etc? Wouldn’t this GREATLY encourage representatives to listen to their district, especially if all the districts went to, say, the same website and then clicked a link for their district?

    It makes sense to me… especially when many people from many districts frequent one website (where they’ll post in their individual district, of course)… that way if anybody feels like they should run against somebody currently in office, they’ll have a really easy toolbox for “what the people want”…

  30. cliffordthered says:

    @DrDave – typical sophomoric swipe ignoring your own party’s blatant corruption.

    My congressperson used to be a republican who would respond to every letter and send regular updates on his work. The gerrymandering now gave me a Democrat who has NEVER responded to my letters and rarely updates me at all. I guess because she is too busy pandering.

  31. Blue says:

    I would like to know the names of the CEO’s who have said that they “………..would not cooperate with the bail-out if they are forced to yield to a Salary Cap….”!

  32. egoldin says:

    Here’s a question. I’d love to write a letter (as opposed to an email), but my handwriting sucks. Like, it’s terrible. Do you think printing out a hand (er, computer-written) letter helps or hurts? It would be a lot easier for the lowly intern opening mail to read…

    • Meggers says:

      @egoldin: I interned on the hill years ago and we would rather get a typed letter then chicken scratch. It is so much easier to get your point across when someone can actually read it.

      Full disclosure- I have horrible handwriting and never learned how to properly write in cursive. *sob*

      • egoldin says:

        @Meggers: Awesome. Thanks!

        Not sure how often I’ll write an essay just to get added to the tally, but might try to write the occasional letter.

  33. Triborough says:

    What you need to do is get several people you know and are constituents to write in. It isn’t the content it is the amount. That, along with something that would get the elected official media play, is basically what will get it kicked up the food chain.

    This is assuming that your elected representative actually gives a flying feck about anything and is not just another fat pig feeing at the troff.

    Most likely you’ll get a form response taken care of by someone probably as low as an intern.

  34. rdm24 says:

    All things equal, writing ANY letter to your representative is far better than bitching about a problem to your friends!

  35. christoj879 says:

    Make sure your letters are SIGNED! I’ve seen letters go from the fax machine to the trash because they weren’t signed, might be national protocol or specific to an office, but I know when you call for help you’re told to send it in writing and sign it.

    And there were an assload (not just a load, an assload) of calls yesterday about the bailout. People are pissed.

  36. RAHfanboy says:

    CallDrDave: “Of course, I worked for a Democrat.”

    Of course. So Republicans are bad. Right.

    VoodooKobra: “I will refer to it the next time a school librarian preaches religion to me and gets away with it.”

    This happens a lot? Ever? Does your minister preach the Dewey Decimal System?

    Cliffordthered: “The gerrymandering now gave me a Democrat who has NEVER responded to my letters and rarely updates me at all. I guess because she is too busy pandering.”

    A panderer’s work is never done. Seriously, they don’t do any work.

  37. mrosedal says:

    I like this statment “Be Exceedingly Polite, Please: Congress attracts haughty personalities. Staffers don’t appreciate being spoken down to or insulted.” Yes, but if they are ignorantly voting on a bill that will “insult” me I might get a little rude. It is because they have “haughty personalities” that we shouldn’t patronize them, but alas I must say that is just what goes through my mind, not what comes out on paper. I do try to be very polite so that my message will actually be heard, but not to stroke the egos of politicians.

  38. BlendaStitch says:

    Dear Secretary Paulson,

    My Proposed Plan would be to issue MTN’s ( Medium Term Notes) they would be AAA/aaa rated Cash Backed Bank Debentures. They would be issued by the Federal Reserve Bank of the United States. They would be sold Globally in US Dollars. The issuance would be by Top Financial Institutions in the World. Terms : 10 years and (1) Day Interest: 7.5% Seasoned Securities Transaction Codes would be Depository Trust Corporation and Euroclear The Ratings would be S&P AAA / Moodys aaa issue 250,000,000,000 Min to 1,000,000,000,000 Max the Projects would be for Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, AIG, Financial Institutions, General Motors, Chrysler, Ford, Alternative Energy and infrastructure investments domestically. I would call it the AIG GLOBAL BOND backed by the full faith and credit of the United States of America. Project Funding would be what is needed to fund the growth of our new global economy. AIG component would pay for itself, just as the Big 3 and investing in alternative energies. There is a tremendous market globally for MTN’s and we are the country that the world tries to match but can’t duplicate. We need to turn this around by investing in our country and giving the world an opportunity to participate.

    Kosta J. Moustakas
    President and CEO
    KJM Securities, inc.
    Bronxville, New York

  39. Anonymous says:

    My family & I are struggling US citizens w/medical issues such as myself. The condo we live in for a year & half now have created danger to our lives & medical problems have occured.
    Strange unusually things began to happen & I ended up having major back surgery rupturing 5 of my discs, inserting rods on both sides of my vertabrea & a bone graph from my hip to insert for leverage. Got behind in my mortgage payments & when I finally went back to work & tried to work with Chase Bank they sent my returned checks back & would not apply toward my account. Now we are going to foreclosure with no where to go & I have been told by my back doctor & foot doctor that I must have a place without any steps as it would benefit me for recovery. I have fallen down our stairs 4 times & now it looks like I will be having my tailbone removed as I have broken it twice. I just can’t seem to take too much more & need a peaceful. relaxing home but can’t seem to get anywhere. Do you have any suggestions as I could use some help here?

    Sincerely
    Carolyn King