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How to Write Your Congressman
Writing to your Congressman, or any other elected official, isn’t as hard or time-consuming as you might imagine. Follow the guidelines outlined below, exercise your citizenship, and make your voice heard.
Before You Write Your Representative
1. Hone in on exactly why you are writing.
Do you have a strong opinion on an issue you heard about in the news? Do you feel you have been treated unfairly by an agency of the government?
It is important to sum up your purpose in one sentence, and not the kind with six commas. This is the first step, and it is important to give you focus and inform the rest of the process. Under most circumstances, this will be the first line of your letter.
2. Figure out whom you should be addressing.
You need to make sure you are sending your message to the right person. This can sometimes take a little bit of homework, depending on your issue. Sometimes your senator or representative is not the best person to handle your issue. For example, if you are concerned with land zoning, this is probably best addressed to your town or county level officials, and issues of state law go to your state legislator.
3. Pick the appropriate medium for your message.
• Hard copy: This is the most dignified and time honored method. There is something about committing a message to paper that makes it all the more official and concrete. Generally this is your best route if you have the time to do it right, and you want to be taken seriously.
• Email: Best for when time is not particularly urgent and you don’t care all that strongly about an issue, but you still want your voice heard. Please do still follow the other guidelines here–it is far too easy to fire off an email in the heat of anger and without proofreading, which could hurt your case if the reader associates your point of view with characteristics like “uninformed” or “uneducated” or “irrational.”
• Phone call: If you hear on the news that something is being voted on today or tomorrow and you can get a live person from their office on the horn, this is the way to make sure your message gets through before it is too late. Keep it short and factual and be very clear on what your position is. If it’s not that urgent, it’s better to use another avenue.
• Meeting in person: This one has a lot of variability. There may be a public hearing for a specific issue, they might hold an event specifically to meet constituents and/or fundraise, or they may attend a meeting of civic groups like a Chamber of Commerce
Writing the Letter
1. Open the letter with an appropriate salutation. For a Representative or Senator, “To the Honorable John Doe,” is a good way to go. Using a title here is also acceptable, “Dear Supervisor Petrone,” for example. Also, make sure your full name and address is on the letter itself.
2. Get straight to the point. The first line of the letter should summarize why you are writing and what it is that you want (you should already be clear on this if you followed the above guidelines). Don’t ramble on too long–people tend to get bored and stop reading after a page or two unless you write something interesting enough to justify it. And if you ramble, it makes you seem like a crazy man.
3. Back up your concerns. Hard facts and statistics cited from a specific, published source (be sure to say where you get the information from) can support your position much better than nebulous statements and pure opinion. Personal stories are often appropriate. If you can tell a story of how this issue affects you or your family specifically, that helps to “bring it home.”
4. Always remember to be respectful. This is someone of power and influence you are addressing, and generally you are looking for them to do you a favor. Impugning your recipient’s character or honesty is counterproductive. Above all, do NOT include anything that could be construed as a threat, unless you enjoy the prospect of the FBI investigating you.
Receiving a Response
More likely than not, any response you do get will be some sort of a form letter. Keep in mind when you are reading their response that this person most likely got to their office at least in part because they are gifted wordsmiths and diplomats, which is to say, you’ll need to read between the lines. If they can honestly say, “I agree with you and I voted accordingly,” of course they will do so. Flowery talk about taking your views into consideration or such without an explicit “I voted this way,” means they voted the other way, and they know you won’t like it, but they are trying to make it sound like they are still on your side.
If they do something special to help you out, a thank you note to let them know that your issue has been resolved is a respectful courtesy.