How to Make Your Voice be Heard
The National Research Center for Women & Families was created because we believe that public policies will be improved if policy makers and the public have better access to accurate, unbiased information. Each of us can make a difference if we share the information we have with those who know how to use it.
Use Your Voice
Elected officials at the local, state, and federal level are responsible for representing the interests of their constituents. In order to know your interests, your elected officials must hear from you! There are several ways to communicate your knowledge or opinions to your representatives:
- Write your U.S. Representative or Senators
- Call your U.S. Representative or Senators
- Visit your U.S. Representative or Senators
Please scroll down for details on these topics.
Be sure to stay informed on issues that matter to you by signing up to receive important updates through the National Research Center for Women and Families Newsroom. For information regarding the status of particular legislation, go to the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives at http://thomas.loc.gov.
Writing Your Letter
Keep in mind that public officials, especially those at the federal level, receive thousands of letters each week. Many won’t even read letters from people who are not their constituents. Here are some tips to help get your letter noticed:
- Be specific. Focus your letter on one issue or legislative proposal. If possible, mention a specific bill that you would like your representatives to support or oppose. The first step is to ask them to co-sponsor the legislation (unless it’s a budget or appropriations bill). If the legislator is on the Congressional Committee where the bill will be debated in a “mark up”, ask them to vote for or against the bill or a specific amendment or amendments. If it is coming up for a vote in the entire House or the Senate, ask them to vote for or against the bill or amendment when it comes “to the floor for a vote.” If you are not sure of the name or number of a bill, or whether it has been “marked up” in Committee, you can find a list and the current status of bills before the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives on the Library of Congress Thomas website at http://thomas.loc.gov.
- Be brief. Try to limit your letter to one page or less. If your letter is over two pages, it may not be read carefully or completely.
- Be polite. The adage “you catch more flies with honey” is especially true when writing to a Member of Congress or other legislator. Try to avoid vulgar or sarcastic language, threats, emotional or irrational arguments, or any kind of personal attacks. You can strongly disagree or express or disappointment without sounding mean-spirited, violent, or crazy. Venting your frustration may feel good to you, but it will do no good and may make it difficult to be effective in the future.
- Be personal. Legislators are elected to care for the concerns of their constituents, so explain how this issue will affect you, your family or your community. Use personal examples of how this issue or similar proposals have impacted your community in the past.
- Cite facts. Elected officials tend to consult the “experts” for advice on certain issues, so use your letter to deliver expert research to them. If possible, cite credible reports and studies, local and national think tanks or investigative task forces.
- Make it easy to read. Type or write very neatly. Letters that are difficult to decipher are usually not read carefully. A letter that looks and sounds good will be taken more seriously than one that is sloppy or badly written. Avoid anything unusual, such as overuse of capital letters (it makes it look like you are shouting) or brightly colored ink or paper. What seems quirky or fun to you might be perceived as unprofessional, weird, or worse by Members of Congress or their staff.
- Offer alternatives. Try offering alternative solutions to the problems addressed in your letter. If you have ideas, share them. You can also endorse the solutions recommended by the reports or experts you have already cited.
- Send a personal letter, not a “cc”. Most elected officials are overloaded with mail, so they are unlikely to read a copy of a letter to someone else. In addition, if you send a letter that is “cc’ed” to many other people, it will be assumed that you don’t know what you are doing.
- Include your name and address. Elected officials generally try to respond to mail from their constituents, so always be sure to include your name and address in your letter.
- Be selective. If you write to the same person too often, you will get an unflattering reputation. Two or three times a year is probably the limit, unless you have a close relationship with the legislator or staff. Also, be sure you know what you’re talking about: don’t write to a Senator about a bill that has only been introduced in the House, or vice versa, unless you are asking them to sponsor the bill.
Addressing Your Letter
You can find direct mailing addresses, email addresses and phone numbers for your U.S. Congressional representatives at http://www.contactingthecongress.org/. Or if you prefer, you can address your letters to the general Congressional mailboxes.
The Honorable _______________
United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510
Dear Senator ________________:
House of Representatives:
The Honorable _______________
United States House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515
Dear Representative ___________:
You can also share your views with the President by writing to:
President of the United States of America
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20500
Dear President __________:
Sample Letter in support of hypothetical bill S. 100:
United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510
Dear Sen. _________:
As a teacher/business owner/artist/researcher/student/whatever who has experience with x, I am writing to ask you to co-sponsor S.100, the National [Blah Blah] Bill.
S. 100 is important to me/our community/teachers/whatever in our state because xyz. It will make a difference in our lives by abc. In addition, research shows that x.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Writing Your State and Local Officials
The tips listed above are also useful when writing to your state and local elected officials. You can consult your local library for representative addresses and information about state and local issues. Additional state government directories can be found on the Library of Congress website at http://www.loc.gov/rr/news/stategov/stategov.html.
Your Congressional representatives are also available to help you maneuver through certain government programs or offices. This is considered part of their job, and is offered to all constituents, not just donors or friends. If you are experiencing difficulty when dealing with federal agencies, such as filing for or receiving Social Security, food stamps, or Medicare benefits or dealing with immigration or naturalization services, you can contact your U.S. Representative or Senator for assistance. Often, your congressional offices can provide appropriate contact information for federal agencies and sometimes even make inquiries to help correct errors or file paperwork.
If you are interested in this type of assistance, you should send a letter or call your elected official for more information.
CALL YOUR ELECTED OFFICIALS
Calling your elected officials is another effective way to share your views on issues and legislation. While you will generally not be able to speak directly with your U.S. Representative or Senators by telephone, their staff will note your comments and share them with the legislator.
The same general tips when you write your U.S. Representative or Senators apply when you call them.
Be specific. Focus your phone call on one issue or legislative proposal and, if possible, refer to the appropriate bill numbers.
- Be brief. Try to limit your call to less than three minutes. Any longer and you may find that you’re asked to hold so the staff can answer other calls.
- Be polite. As with your letters, avoid sarcastic, vulgar, or threatening language on the phone.
- Offer your name and address. Do not be surprised if you are asked for your name and address, as elected officials sometimes try to respond to phone messages with letters.
- Follow up with a letter. As a phone call limits the amount you can say, it is often a good idea to follow up with a letter so that you may cite facts and offer alternative solutions for the issue. Click write your U.S. Representative or Senators for tips on writing your follow-up letter.
- Be selective. It is expected that constituents will call just before a vote on a bill that is important to them. Other calls should be very selective. As a researcher or other professional, it is appropriate to call to let your elected representatives know about the work that you do that is relevant to their votes. For these kinds of calls, make sure you ask for the appropriate L.A. (Legislative Assistant) who works on the type of issue you want to discuss (such as health, the environment, foreign affairs, children’s issues, etc). This call will certainly take more than 3 minutes, but you should still keep it short. As a patient with health problems that could be affected by legislation, it is similarly appropriate to let the health staffer of your elected representatives know about your expertise and how they can better represent your interests. Again, be as brief as possible, and don’t go through a long list of medical problems and experiences.
- Timing. If you are a researcher or other expert that is trying to make a “get acquainted call,” try to time it to coincide with less busy times in Washington, such as recess (usually around Federal holidays). Mondays and Fridays also tend to be less busy, since hearings and votes are usually held on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays.
Click here to find phone numbers for your U.S. Congressional representatives at the Senate and House of Representatives websites. You may also be connected through the Capitol operator by dialing (202) 224-3121.
You can share your views with the President by calling White House staff at (202) 456-1414.
Calling Your State and Local Officials
The tips listed above are also useful when calling your state and local elected officials. You can consult your local library for representative phone numbers and information about state and local issues. Additional state government directories can be found on the Library of Congress website at http://www.loc.gov/rr/news/stategov/stategov.html.
VISIT YOUR ELECTED OFFICIALS
If you are very knowledgeable about your issue, it is often wise to follow up your letter or phone call with a visit to your elected officials. Often, if your representative is unable to schedule a meeting, they will designate an appropriate staff member to meet with you. Here are some tips to help you have an informative and effective meeting with any national, state or local official.
- Schedule in advance. Call your elected official well in advance to schedule an appointment. Whether you are requesting a meeting in Washington, DC, your state capital or at your representative’s district office, you should always schedule your appointment weeks or months in advance.
- Be flexible. Even though you have scheduled an appointment, time conflicts may arise for your representative and you should be prepared to alter your appointment if necessary.
- Be selective. Save your visits for important issues. As a researcher or other professional, it is appropriate to ask for a meeting to briefly discuss how your knowledge is relevant to their votes. As a patient with health problems that could be affected by legislation, it is similarly appropriate to let your elected representatives know about your expertise and how they can better represent your interests.
- Be prepared. Whether your appointment is with the representative or a staff member, you should never assume that they are knowledgeable about your issue or legislative proposal. Do your research ahead of time and come to the meeting as prepared as possible. You should not be there just to chat; be ready to tell them what you want, whether it is to support or oppose a bill, to try to get federal funding for certain kinds of programs or research, or to call on you for your expertise on a specific topic if the need arises. Try to bring brief written materials, such as an issue brief or a one-page list of concerns, which you can leave with them. You may be able to get these materials from a think tank or research center, or you may write them yourself.
- Be professional. Dress appropriately for your meeting and show respect (whether you feel it or not). Congressional members should be addressed as “Senator” and “Representative” or “Congressman/woman.” Staff should be treated with respect even if they look young enough to be your child or grandchild. And, as with your letters and phone calls, use polite language and avoid emotional or irrational arguments.
- Send a thank you. Always follow up a meeting with a thank you note. This will remind them of the issue and its importance to you and your community.
Sample Thank You letter
Use your judgement with regards to comments that specifically address the issue at hand. If legislation is pending, you may want to mention the bill number and stress the level of urgency involved. The letter below is only a suggested format:
Dear Senator/ Representative __________:
I very much enjoyed meeting with you on (date) with regards to (subject). I hope you will take my concerns/suggestions into consideration. I will continue to follow-up on this issue and look forward to hearing about any further developments from your office. Please feel free to contact me/organization’s name with any questions or requests for additional information.
Letters, phone calls, and visits really can make a difference. Don’t put it off. Take a few minutes to let your voice be heard today!