October 18, 2017

How To Write Your Representatives

Congress gets thousands of letters a day; here’s how to make yours stand out

by Chris Thomas

Writing a Letter, Petar Milošević

Congress really does listen to the flood of messages that are delivered to Capitol Hill every day. People who take the time to write Congress are far more likely to be people who take the time to vote, so even a junior congressman knows that a handful of messages may indicate a large and dissatisfied constituency back home.

How Congress Reads Mail

First, let’s clear up some misconceptions. Your letter is almost certainly not going to wind up in your Congressman’s hands. The odds just aren’t in your favor. According to The New Yorker, the US Senate received 6.4 million letters last year — not counting faxes, emails, or phone calls. That amounts to 64,000 letters per Senator or, if the same volume were spread over the House, 14,712 letters per Representative. No one has time to read that.

You’re writing your Congressperson, but her staff is your audience

Those letters — as well as the emails, faxes, etc are all read, processed, categorized, and responded to by the Congressional staff. You’re writing your Congressperson, but his staff is your audience; they’re who you need to communicate with because they’re going to be representing your opinion to your legislator.

How To Write To Congressional Staff

That isn’t to say that your letter can’t end up in a Congressman’s or Senator’s hands; staff will often cull exceptional letters for their boss to read. The vast majority of the correspondence that goes to a Congressional office, however, is summarized, tallied, and presented statistically rather than in long form. To that end, the single most important part of writing to Congress to to be clear about what you want.

The Opening

The staff who listen to your voicemails and read your letters, faxes, emails have thousands of individual messages to get through. They skim, as anyone with that kind of workload would. Their job is simple: categorize your message by topic and position. If you want your opinion accurately reflected, start and end your letter with a clear and unambiguous position statement.

I am writing today in opposition to H.R. 175—the Obamacare Repeal Act

The above has the advantage of both directness and clarity. The word “opposition” indicates to the staff exactly what position you’re taking on the issue and the issue itself has been named as H.R 175. A bill number is ideal when writing Congress because it shows that you’re informed about the topic and eliminates the risk that a staffer is confused about what issue you’re addressing.

The Explanation

The reason Congress cares about messages from constituents and doesn’t just rely on opinion polling in their districts is because letters and faxes and emails measure something opinion polling has difficulty assessing: passion. People who care about issues deeply are much more likely to write about and expand on why those issues matter to them. As a consequence, how and that you provide distinct, personal details supporting your position matters when Congress considers the import of the message you sent.

This is one of the reasons that form letters to Congress are so ineffective. Identical prose means the “author” didn’t care enough to write their own letter. A message is, in that sense, a measure of civic engagement and taking the time to stake out your own position matters.

The Obamacare Repeal Act would strip health insurance from millions of Americans, like myself, who have chronic health problems and would not otherwise be able to purchase or afford insurance. Health insurance is important to me and my access to it is a matter of life or death.

Note in the above text how we’ve stated a consequence of the legislation and related it to ourselves personally. This letter isn’t just about an issue, it’s about a constituent. At some point this Congressman is going to stand on the steps of the Capitol building and talk to the press about how he heard from constituents all across his district and how H.R. 175 would affect them. He’ll make that speech with a bundle of letters in his left hand and making the letter personally about you, a constituent, makes it more likely that yours will be in that bundle.

The Stakes

Lots of people have positions they care about but don’t vote about. After all, the United States has a first-past-the-post electoral system and that means we usually have a two party system. There are probably a lot of issues out there and your representatives would not be doing their job if they weren’t trying to triangulate a position on all of them. If this issue really matters to you, you have to let them know, not just that it matters, but that it matters enough to take action.

If this issue matters to you, you have to let them know.
I was honored to vote for you in your most recent run for office. I canvassed neighborhoods in my home-town, phone banked, and even donated what I could to your campaign. I hope my faith in you was not misplaced.

This is a not-so-veiled threat, and that’s ok. Candidates depend on voters but they also depend on volunteers and donors. Voting is table-stakes if you want your representative to take you seriously. But if you contribute to their campaign, either with your time or your money, you’re not just a voter, you’re a valuable asset in the race for reelection. If you didn’t do those things, don’t lie and say you did, but if you did work, call, or donate in support of a candidate that makes your voice louder.

The Conclusion

End the way you started, by stating your position and the issue you wrote about. Help the staff member who’s reading your letter categorize it efficiently and correctly. Even if your message never makes it past the first intern that opened it, your position will be recorded, tallied, and represented to your legislator in summary form.

Please vote no on H.R. 175.

Short, simple, to the point, and completely unambiguous.

Our letter

So, if we put it all together, here’s the letter we wrote to Congress.

I am writing today in opposition to H.R. 175 — the Obamacare Repeal Act. The Obamacare Repeal Act would strip health insurance from millions of Americans, like myself, who have chronic health problems and would not otherwise be able to purchase or afford insurance. Health insurance is important to me and my access to it is a matter of life or death.
I was honored to vote for you in your most recent run for office. I canvassed neighborhoods in my home-town, phone banked, and even donated what I could to your campaign. I hope my faith in you was not misplaced.
Please vote no on H.R. 175.

Gotchas and Caveats

Writing a tight, concise letter is important but there are a few other factors to consider.

It’s the thought that counts

Remember, Congress generally doesn’t care how you contact them; they care how many constituents contact them with unique, well-thought out messages. Faxes, emails, or physical letters are all read and tallied equally by Congressional staffers. It is the raw numerical output of the sorting, categorizing, and filing of these letters that really sways Congressional opinion. Nonetheless, if there is an advantage in any specific media, it goes to physical letters. These are the objects most likely to be passed on the members of Congress because of the tangible, physical link between Representative and Representee.

When it comes to the numbers game, however, email is hard to beat. Emails are native to the digital world and can be much more easily read on a smartphone between meetings or in the other moments of downtime in Congress. They don’t have to be scanned, opened, transcribed, or anything else on their way to the data-processing systems at the heart of any Congressional correspondence operation and that means that they’re the least likely to wind up misunderstood due to human error.

Try to stay calm

While many of the issues before Congress are positively enraging, a message that comes across as unhinged or overly emotional will often be discarded as “one of the crazies.” Unfortunately, there are no shortage of very strange and unstable people who take interest in politics. Ronald Reagan was famously shot by a man who thought assassinating him would win him the affections of Jodie Foster.

A message that comes across as unhinged will often be discarded

Just taking the time to contact Congress communicates a significant emotional and personal investment in the issues. Maintaining a professional and respectful tone while you do so shows that your position is rational as well.

Keep your facts straight

One of the benefits to keeping things brief is that it becomes difficult to get anything wrong that you don’t say in the first place. Politics, and especially the legislative process, is a complex, technical, and legalistic business and the people you’re writing are professionals. If you come across as an uneducated rube they’ll treat you like one. Know the status of the bills you’re writing about. Know the names and numbers of them and check to make sure that you have the correct references for the correct Congress (bills often get recycled between Congresses but take on new numbers when that happens). Check, double check, and then re-check any facts you set into evidence. Be sure before you hit “send.”

When time is of the essence

It takes time to process Congressional correspondence. Sometimes that’s ok but if you’re writing about an issue and there’s a vote today you’re going to need to jump the line. This is the time to pick up a phone. Unfortunately, you may find that it’s hard to get through. If the office is flooded with calls you may not have the opportunity to say as much as you wanted to and there’s always a risk that your message may be misunderstood… but better to have said something than nothing and better late than never.

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