If you want to know the most important rule about contacting Congress and launching a successful advocacy campaign, this is it: Congress Only Wants to hear from Constituents. No one else.* If you have an opinion to share, a request to make, or a question to ask, address YOUR representative or senator.
For many, this can be frustrating, especially if your own representative or senator does not share your view or is not a member of a committee with jurisdiction over the issue in question. Or, maybe you are like many who contact us from the District of Columbia or territories — your feel powerless and unrepresented.
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. Here’s why:
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.
There are good reasons for legislators to focus on their constituents
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:
- Limited resources- 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.
- Limiting incumbent advantage - These rules are designed to minimize the electoral incumbent advantage that comes from access to official communications channels. (Imagine if someone running for President could use Senate or House resources to get their name out to people all over the country — would not be fair.)
You can still be effective — even if YOUR legislator seems unmoveable or ineffective
Don’t discount the power of your legislator even if they are a delgate without a vote on the House Floor or not a member of a committee of jurisdiction. Delegates still have power with their committee votes and and are courted as allies in the same ways as other members. For members not sitting on the committee holding a hearing or conferencing on the bill or being called SUPER, they still have great sway and will lobby their colleagues on behalf of constituents.
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 across 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.)
- Show local pressure: 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, drive the numbers in your district on POPVOX and point your local media (and your local legislators) to take note.
- Cultivate “grass tops” - Lobby local officials - your city council person, school board members, PTA leader, religious leaders, etc. to take a position on the issue — and do it on POPVOX so you can point others’ to their input. Studies show that hearing from “constituents who represent other constituents” is one of the most influential factors in helping an undecided representative or senator make up their mind.
- 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.
At POPVOX, we are working not only to make it easier for you to make your voice heard in Congress, but also to make it easier for Congress to process all of the incoming messages. In a recent meeting with Congressional staff, we were told that messages sent through POPVOX are the most easily processed by staff. We asked what we could do better and one staffer told ys, “Make sure EVERYONE uses this.” We’re working on it!
* This refers only to 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. As with anything in Congress, there are exceptions.
This is an updated post that was originally published on the POPVOX blog on November 10, 2010.