Contacting Congress Tip #1: Members of Congress only want to hear from constituents (no one else.)
From time to time, the POPVOX founding team will share some tips and background we have learned throughout our experience or that we learn from those using the site. If you have tips or comments you would like to share, or questions you would like to have answered, please share at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Members of Congress only want to hear from constituents (no one else.)*
This is one of the first, most important rules of legislative advocacy. If you have an opinion to share, a request to make, or a question to ask, address your Representative or Senator.
For many individuals, this can sometimes be frustrating, especially if their own Member does not share their view or party or is not a member of a committee with jurisdiction over the issue in question.
This frustration causes many people to send their message to another legislator whom they feel will be more receptive to their concerns. These messages usually begin with, "I know I am not in your district, but I live in your state..." or "You must listen to me because I am a citizen of the United States of America..." or "I am writing to you because my own Senator won't listen." Some of these letters or emails may then go on to make extremely valid points or share touching personal stories, but they will not reach their intended recipient.
The staffer processing letters and other correspondence in the receiving office (usually called a Legislative Correspondent) will automatically pull any that reflect addresses outside the district (or state, for Senators) and forward the correspondence to the correct office. This is known as “professional courtesy.” That means that correspondence addressed to the incorrect office will not be read by the Member of Congress and probably not even read by the staffer sorting the mail.
Does this mean that legislators are solely focused on those who can re-elect them? Well, that is one interpretation, but there are some good reasons for the practice:
- Focus on constituents - Members of Congress are essentially the “customer service” department for their districts. They have a set amount of resources and staff to handle incoming requests and statements. Any diversion of resources to process or respond to requests from outside the district necessarily means less attention can be paid to the constituents that they are in office to represent.
- Franking restrictions - Members of Congress are given a powerful tool in the Congressional Franking Privilege , which allows them to send messages and respond to constituent inquiries through the U.S. Postal Service or over official email addresses. Members’ franking limitations are set based on the number of people in their state or district, so that expenditure of resources to respond to non-constituent requests could compromise the ability to respond to actual constituents. In addition, Franking laws restrict Members’ from sending mass mailings outside their district. These laws are designed to minimize the electoral incumbent advantage that comes from the free access to official communications channels.
So what should you do if you have an opinion to share that you feel should be heard by someone who is not your Representative or Senator?
- Express your opinion to your legislator anyway . Sometimes minds change. Usually the best way to get your point acros is to tell a personal story that illustrates your point. With POPVOX, that story does not just go into the “black box” of legislative correspondence system. You can share your comment via Facebook, Twitter, or email, and ask others to weigh in on the issue. If you are able to show that more people in your district share your opinion, you will increase the chance of affecting the way your legislator thinks about the matter.
(One of the motivating factors behind the creation of POPVOX was the moving testimonials and heartfelt opinions that come into Capitol Hill that are not be shared with a wider audience. Since comments on POPVOX are public and searchable, those that strike a chord or make a particularly salient point can be shared and read by all, and may rise to get the attention of those key legislators that would otherwise not receive the message if it were simply sent to their office.)
- Write a letter to your local newspaper or post on local blogs. Refer your friends and neighbors to the local stories and opinions on POPVOX. Soon we will make it possible for media to contact commenters through their POPVOX profile (we will never give out your name or email without your permission) to conduct an interview or get background.
- Build support in the districts or states of key legislators. If there is a key committee member or whose vote is crucial, then your best bet is to show that his or her constituents agree with your position. Maybe it’s time to tap into that alumni directory or reach out to your cousins’ cousin in a committee chair’s district. We designed POPVOX so that you can see sentiment and comments at the district and state level -- and so that the committee chair’s local newspaper and blogs are able to see what people are saying back home.
* This is a discussion about legislative advocacy and interactions with a Member's legislative office. As a general rule, campaign staff and campaign offices are happy to accept donations from people in any district.