This page is designed help you work more effectively with a congressional office.
According to the Congressional Management Foundation, only 5 to 7 percent of the population communicates with their elected officials. It’s fun to share our opinions with our friends and at the dinner table; it’s vital that we share these same opinions with those in policy making positions who pass the laws that impact our daily lives, from the taxes we pay to the civil rights we are obliged to protect.
CAIR has shown again and again the power of individuals communicating with decision makers. Put your faith into action and be sure your congressperson addresses the issues that concern you and your family.
Public officials are elected to serve the interests of their constituents. Members of the U.S. House of Representatives are elected by the people living within a defined geographic area in a state known as a congressional district. U.S. senators serve everyone who lives in their state.
You are represented in the U.S. Congress by one representative and two senators.
What can a congressional office do?
Crafting law and shaping policy are among the primary responsibilities of members of congress. Article I of the U.S. Constitution grants congress “all legislative powers” in government. Among these powers are coining money, maintaining the military and regulating commerce. In general, legislative and policy work is handled by the congressperson’s office in Washington, D.C.
Another important task for congressional offices is constituent service. This entails everything from helping constituents address major issues with government agencies to sending birthday greetings and flags that have flown over the U.S. Capitol. Congressional offices can also: assist constituents with appointments to U.S. military academies; aid the immigration process; facilitate access to housing assistance and subsidies; help in acquiring information in federal prison cases; and can point entrepreneurs toward government programs that can help their business. In general, this work is handled by the congressperson’s office or offices in the district or state he or she represents.
Know your needs; understand their needs
Members of Congress rely on constituents to help them shape their positions regarding the issues of the day. They seek the insights of community leaders and highly-regarded constituents.
When approaching a member of Congress, it is important to be clear about your purpose. As a community leader, you may be looking to foster a long-term relationship. As a concerned citizen, you may want to see action on a particular issue or get your legislator to vote a certain way on an important piece of legislation.
Regardless of your intent or purpose, be specific in your requests and allow yourself the opportunity to follow up. This will ensure that you are building toward a relationship rather than a one-time interaction. For instance asking, “Will you vote in favor of legislation X” or “Will you bring this point up during debate on the House floor” are examples of specific requests. If you are in a position to organize a town hall meeting, inviting the congressperson to visit with the community is another good strategy.
Do not tell the congressperson or their staff that you want to “make them aware of” an issue. Your issue may be fascinating, but their schedules are overloaded. Once they find you are not asking for anything specific, their attention may drift.
Equally important to knowing your goals is understanding the needs of the congressperson and their staff. First and foremost, members of Congress are responsible to the voters in their districts. Voters are the boss and elections are the annual review. You may have the best issue in the world, but if it does not find support in the district it may be hard to convince the congressperson.
It is recommended that you do some reading about the congressperson’s views and priorities before your meeting. Information about the congressperson can be found through a visit to his or her website, searching for information about him or her on the internet, or reading articles about him or her in the local paper.
Building a reputation is important. When you call an office, your reputation can result in your phone call going to a decision maker or being transferred to “our convenient general complaint voicemail box that is reviewed daily.”
Be honest about what you can and cannot do. Never make promises you can’t keep and keep the ones you make. In making a presentation, do not omit information that harms your case but is critical to the issue.
Don’t wear out your welcome. Constant visits and letters will strain even the best of friendships. You must balance your need to keep your issue “top of mind” with the reality that a congressional office is inundated with people and issues.
Pitching your issue
As you frame your arguments to elicit support for your concerns, think about how the congressperson adopting the issue will help you both, and how it will impact their district.
Equally, always be able to compromise. On issues where you cannot come to a mutually agreeable conclusion, always maintain basic courtesy. Venting your frustration may be immediately fulfilling, but in the long-term it can lead to a closed door.
For congressional consumption, materials supporting your issue should be no longer than five pages. Your first paragraph should clearly state what you are concerned about and what can be done. Research indicates that you have approximately 15 seconds, or 150 words, before the reader decides to continue with what you have written or to move on to something else.
Boil down your arguments to their most basic components, and bullet point key information and requests. Write using short sentences and paragraphs. Massive blocks of text discourage reading by those who already have too much to read. Facts and numbers are important, but don’t be afraid to include a personal story that puts a human face on your issue.
There is a good formula to follow in laying out your materials:
- outline the need for change,
- propose a specific change,
- address how workable the change is,
- review the positive and negative consequences of the change, and
- rebut any arguments those who hold views different from you might present.
Even if you give the material in print, send it in an electronic form that the office can cut and paste at need. Congressional offices are always seeking good material to help them push issues forward — be willing to provide it to them.
Working with staff is important. Frequently, staffers are the office experts on their particular issues. They are also far more accessible than the typical member of Congress. Quickly respond to any requests that staffers make; remember, they are trying to act on your behalf.
Always be willing to build coalitions around issues. Lending your support to the concerns of other communities can bring them on board with your issues. It is sometimes politically easy to turn away from one group, but a coalition representing varied interest groups is harder to ignore.
Want to know more? Need help or advice? Call CAIR and talk to our government affairs department.