Before we begin, I should mention something about form letters. A lot of advocacy organizations set up web pages like this:
o The name of a bill, and a couple of paragraphs about why you should support or oppose it
o A form to enter your name and address
o A sample letter to send to Congress
o A button to automatically send the sample letter
Encouraging people to be aware of what Congress is doing, and to contact Congress when a bill or issue impacts them, is a great thing. However, the problem is the sample letter. Even if you tell people “This is just an example letter! Write about the issue in your own words!”, most people will just send the sample letter.
Personal letters have more impact than form letters. Writing about an issue in your own words shows how the issue impacts you. Sending a form letter shows that you can click a button on a website.
Also, it’s important to consider the issue of paper letters versus email. Paper letters have more impact, but they take much longer to reach Congress. Some of you may remember, back in 2001, when several members of Congress allegedly received letters filled with anthrax. Ten years later, paper letters to Congress are still checked for anthrax. Paper letters and packages are routed through a secure facility, and opened and dosed with radiation before being forwarded on to Congress. Sometimes paper letters are lost or accidentally destroyed. So, when you learn about an issue, you want to send a letter as soon as you possibly can. If they are voting on a bill next week, they probably won’t get your letter in time, so you should consider sending an email instead.
Of course, all of this only applies to Congress, not the state legislature.
Finally, remember to show some of that all-too-uncommon common courtesy. Be brief and polite. The staff member reading your letter reads letters like yours all day, every day. They won’t read your autobiography. Also, keep in mind that it’s a staff member, not the official, reading the letter. You might be really angry at some politician, but don’t take it out on his staff. The letter reader doesn’t control what his boss does.
ADDRESSING THE LETTER
Whether you’re writing to a Senator or Representative at the State or Federal level, the proper term of address is “The Honorable”, regardless of how accurate that term might be.
The Honorable [Full Name]
Dear [Full Name]
Body of the letter…
Some people say that letters to Congress have more impact if you address them directly to the Legislative Assistant handling the bill. Legislative Assistants keep track of pending legislation, conduct research, and offer the politician advice about policy. The Legislative Assistants actually read the letters, so addressing them by name is sure to get their attention.
How do you find their names? The easiest way is to call the Capitol switchboard. Call (202) 224-3121, and ask for the office of whatever member of Congress you are planning on writing. When they connect you to their office, ask whoever answers the phone for the name of the legislative assistant who is handling the issue or bill you are planning to write about. Be sure to ask how their name is spelled. Even if their name is “John Smith”, it might be spelled “J-o-n S-m-y-t-h”.
If you are writing to the legislative assistant, you still address your letter to The Honorable Member of Congress, c/o the staff member.
Member Of Congress
If you decide to address your letter to the Legislative Assistant, be sure to share their name with anyone else who might write about the bill.
Before you give your opinion on an issue, you have to let them know why they should care what you think. Politicians want the opinions of four kinds of people:
1. Voters In Their District – Obviously, politicians want votes so they can keep their jobs. If you are in the politician’s district, say so. They care more about you if they know you can vote to keep them in – or kick them out – of office.
2. Stakeholders – A “stakeholder” is someone who will be directly impacted by the bill or issue.
3. Experts – People who have professional experience in a particular area.
4. Group representatives – A member of an organization who is speaking on the organization’s behalf. This could be a nonprofit, a social club, or some advocacy organization.
The more things on this list you are, the more consideration will be given to your letter.
If you are writing about a particular piece of legislation, give the name and number of the bill. It doesn’t do any good to write your representative if they don’t know what bill you are talking about. Also, you should state very clearly and very briefly whether you are for or against the bill. This should be one sentence. “I am asking you to oppose H.R. 204, The Let’s Buy Everyone a Pony Act, because I don’t want to clean up after a horse.”
EXPAND ON THE ISSUE
In the next paragraph, expand on the previous sentence. Give a couple of examples of how the bill or issue directly affects you and/or people you know. If you have professional experience in the issue, expand upon that.
When you are talking about disability issues, it helps to mention the sheer number of people with disabilities in the country or the state. According to the 2010 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates, there are over 36 million people with disabilities in the United States, and over 800,000 in Indiana. If you are writing a letter and need specific statistics, of course you can contact Fifth Freedom and we can help you find them.
Also, if the politician has done something or supported a bill or issue that benefited you, this is a good place to mention it. People are always more likely to do what you want when you include a compliment with your criticism.
CALL TO ACTION
What do you want them to do? Briefly explain the course of action that you would like the official to take.
There might not be a particular bill that you are asking them to support or oppose. You might be writing them just to remind them that people need more funding for Waiver services, or public transportation, or whatever particular program you support. You might even just ask them to be aware of the needs of people with disabilities and to make an effort to become more informed.
If you do have a bill you want them to support or oppose, what you ask them to do depends on where the bill is in the political process. You can keep track of bills at OpenCongress.org, IN.gov, or of course at Fifth Freedom’s bill tracker.
o If the bill has just been introduced, you might ask them to become a sponsor, to officially sign on as supporting and advocating for the bill.
o If the bill is going through committee hearings, you might ask them to amend the bill, to add or remove a provision.
o If the bill has passed and become law, you can still contact your representatives about it. If you are against a new law, you can ask them to not fund it or even to repeal it. Repealing bills is always unlikely. During a campaign, politicians often talk about how much they oppose a law passed by the other party, but once they’re elected, they almost never make the effort to repeal it. If you are for a new law, you can ask them to follow through and make sure it gets implemented and funded. A new law might create a new program or service, but they don’t have to actually fund it.
Your name, organization and job title if applicable, and your full address.
Keep a copy of the letter for your records. Be sure to note when and where you sent it. If you send other letters about the same issue, include a reference to your earlier letters. When bills you support pass, these records come in handy when you send your legislators thank-you notes.