I read a post today on Firedoglake from a link on Discourse.net, written by University of Miami law professor Michael Froomkin. The Firedoglake post was entitled “Correspondence School“ – a quick lesson on effectively communicating with your Representative and Senator in Washington DC.
It’s a decent article, and comes from a former Congressional staffer’s perspective, everyone should read it. There are a couple of points I wanted to highlight:
First, remember what’s going on here. You are NOT, in all likelihood, going to change your Congress Critter’s mind.
Mail comes into the office [the DC office, anyway] and is opened & sorted by the lowest person on the staff totem pole.
Someone on the staff is assigned to write a vanilla/milquetoast response for each issue. [”Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with me. I will certainly keep them in mind when this issue comes to the floor.” ]
Basically, this is true for any communication you send to any elected official. They don’t open their own mail.
However, I can say this about the state legislators for whom I’ve worked – they read most of the mail, although not in the manner you may think.
Here is the process I used, and most offices follow some similar process — it’s a bit detailed, but it paints a clearer picture of the inner workings of a state legislative office:
A. A letter is received by the office. Physical letters delivered via the U.S. Post Office are the best form of communication with a legislative office — especially if they are not form letters with just a signature at the bottom. Email that is personalized can also be effective.
B. Determine if they are a constituent. Yes, the most important thing on any letter is the physical address. Does the letter come from someone who lives in the district. Letters from voters on issues or seeking help with problems receive the most attention. Some special interest groups send mailings with perforated “reply” cards that are sent to legislative offices, others email a “form letter” that can be mailed. These can be effective – if the name and address of the voter are legible.
Don’t forget that email can come from outside the state. We received hundreds and hundreds of emails from outside the state of Florida on the Terry Shiavo issue. Passionate people on both sides of the issue sent emails, but those had little impact unless they identified themselves as Florida residents in some way. How do I know if Jane Doe is from Oldsmar or Oklahoma?
Also, the term “constituent” can be a loose definition. For example, Governor Charlie Crist responded to everyone that wrote him as a State Senator. If a representative has further ambitions he or she might be willing to respond to or help people who live in a larger area – such as the whole county, or a state senate district.
C. Determine the nature of the communication. Are they writing about an issue or do they need help solving a problem? The nature of the letter or email is the basis for how the office handles that communication.
D. Is it an issue within the office’s purview? For me, this meant – is it a state issue? We would get letters from time to time about federal or local issues on which the legislator had no say. Sure he or she might have an opinion in immigration or Iraq or the potholes on Main Street — but there is little he or she can do about it.
Once these steps have taken place, the office can act. There are basically four types of letters received by a legislative office:
1. Issue-oriented, from a constituent, issue within the purview – We would draft a reply specific to the issue, with up-to-date information when possible, and present the reply to the representative for his or her signature.
2. Assistance requested, from a constituent, issue within the purview – Depending on the amount of assistance required, we would let them know their letter was received and we were working on the issue, or we would provide them with the answer to their problem.
However, on complicated issues, we would forward a copy of their letter to the appropriate executive branch agency for help – and “cc” the constituent on our communication with the agency. Some issues required additional communication with the agency, and the constituent would be copied on all written communication. When a reply was received in our office, we would forward that reply to the constituent with a cover letter explaining our part of the process.
Many times we were unable to render assistance, and that is a challenging letter to write. Generally, when we could not achieve the results the constituents requested, they were understanding and still felt positive about the interaction with our office. I can’t recall a single constituent who blamed my bosses for not being able to help.
3. From a constituent, issue not within the purview – We would draft a reply that indicated the issue is not within the purview of the office, and refer the constituent to the correct office (local or federal). This was true for both issue-based and assistance request letters. To some extent, partisanship comes into play here – we usually referred the constituent to other Republican offices – as I have only worked for Republicans.
4. Not from a constituent – For non-constituent letters, we would usually draft a cover letter to the correct office and forward the original communication. Sometimes the letter was addressed to the other elected official and the writer received a copy; other times we replied to the writer and the elected official received a copy.
In every case, as he or she was reading the letters he or she was signing, he or she would also read the original letters. Now, if we had a stack of, say, 30 form letters from 30 constituents, he wouldn’t read all 30 – but would read the first one to understand how the voters felt. Yes, when we receive a form letter, we would reply with a form letter; but we always tried to update our reply with the most current information on the issue.
How to Be Effective
So here are my tips for effectively communicating with your elected official.
- Write a letter on real paper. It doesn’t have to be hand-written; you can use a computer. But a physical sheet of paper carries more weight than an email. It takes more time, effort, energy, and thought than email.
- Make sure you include your physical address. They need to know you are a constituent, even if you know you don’t live in their district.
- Make sure your name is clearly spelled out. Some signatures are hard to read, so make sure you legibly print your name on the letter.
- Send the letter where the official is. Is the legislature meeting in session? Send the letter to Tallahassee. If not, send it to the district office.
- Be nice. You can disagree without being disagreeable. So, treat your elected official the way you expect him or her to treat you – with civility and respect. Even if you are writing to Dick Cheney or Nancy Pelosi, and you hate their politics with a zealous fervor, being respectful yet direct can move your letter to the top of the stack.
I hope this helps!