How To Get Congress To Actually Listen To You

As part of my challenge to talk to people from all backgrounds, with all kinds of beliefs, I’ve had a few conversations lately about writing letters to Congress. I’ve seen big, multi-page missives, short and succinct postcards, and everything in between, which got me wondering: What types of letters truly resonate? What gets through to a Senator or Congressman/Congresswoman, who’s dealing with dozens of issues — and thousands of constituents, not to mention lobbyists and other politicians — a day?

After speaking with a few people who worked in those offices, I was surprised to see how often those letters go into one of three piles: For This, Against That, or trash. With the volume of mail (and general issues) crossing politicians’ desks each day, their aides and interns have to sift through it all, which often means your message has to be digested within seconds, so it can be sorted into one of those piles. Based on what I’ve heard, here’s how to make sure your voice is heard:

  1. Call out what you stand for in the first sentence. There’s a reason so many form letters to Congress start out with “I’m in favor of/against Bill No. Insert-Number-Here, regarding this issue…” — it lets the politician’s staff immediately know the purpose of your message, and whether it goes in the “for it” tallies or “against it.” From there, you can expand to your rationale or personal story behind the issue.
  2. Make sure you’re writing the right person for your district.¬†At the end of the day, the senator/congressman cares about his/her constituents first and foremost, so the staff also immediately looks at your address to determine whether you’re part of the relevant audience. Some staffs will interoffice letters to the correct representative, but that’s not always the case. Triple-check before sending that letter.
  3. Include your name and address, even in emails. That goes back to tip #2, so the staff can easily verify you’re part of the relevant constituency, so they should listen up.
  4. Don’t be vague. A letter saying you’re in favor of women’s rights is great, but that can be interpreted widely, and a former aide I spoke to said that often means the letter’s ignored entirely, because the staff doesn’t want to assume exactly what that means, putting words in the constituent’s mouth. It’s better to bullet that out, linking it to specific bills currently being considered, or hot-button issues that are expected to come up during the legislative session.

Not sure who represents you, or how to get in touch with them? Try these tools:

If you’d like a template to help you figure out exactly what to write, check out this sample letter.

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