How to Talk to Your Member of Congress

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Monday, September 25, 2006
Sometimes, you just have to get in touch with your member of Congress. Perhaps Congress is taking up an issue — the minimum wage, say, or a bill to promote medical research — that would make a difference in your life. Maybe some matter is embroiling your community, such as growing drug problems at the high school or a proposed urban renewal project that will destroy a neighborhood. 

Or you might just want to suggest that Congress start acting like the independent branch it’s supposed to be, rather than a rubber stamp for the White House. 

Whatever the case, you can always write a letter or send an e-mail — the more personalized, the better. This is the most common form of communication with Congress. But there are times when a letter doesn’t seem enough. So how do you go about getting your Congress member’s attention? Isn’t that something only wealthy donors and Washington lobbyists can manage? 

Hardly. Remember, Congress is there to represent you. For our system to work, you need to be willing to share your thoughts with members of Congress, and they need to be willing to listen. 

In some ways, the easiest step is actually getting in touch. If you call, for instance, it’s unlikely you’ll get your member of Congress right away, but you can certainly pass on a message; most members set aside time each week to call back constituents. 

Members also make time on their schedules to meet with constituents, so if you’re going to be in Washington, set up an appointment in advance. It’s even more likely that you’ll be able to schedule a meeting back home, in the district office or even at a local coffee shop, where the distractions of the Capitol are far away. 

There are other avenues, too, besides one-on-one conversations. Members regularly hold public meetings in the district, and their times and places are usually listed on the member’s website. Just show up, and don’t hesitate to say what’s on your mind. 

Members also hold "virtual forums" now — online discussions in which they and their constituents can share their views. You might also take the bull by the horns and invite your member of Congress to speak to a local group to which you belong; it’s a good way to get a conversation going, and you may feel more comfortable having friends and acquaintances alongside you. 

Finally, it is always worth getting to know a member’s staff, either in Washington or in the district. These men and women often have expertise that can resolve your specific problem. If only speaking to your elected official will do, they can help smooth the way. 

Once you’re on the phone or face to face with your lawmaker or a staff member, there are certain things you can do that will help you be more credible. Do enough research beforehand to be knowledgeable about the issue, and definitely do not overstate your case or try to mislead. If you can make your case with facts and figures instead of spin, and know the arguments on the other side, you will be far more convincing. 

Since you have limited time, be sure to stick to the most important points in your position. Do what you can to be as personal as possible: Explain how a given issue will affect you or your family, and if you can, appeal to your member’s own experience or background to make a point. 

Finally, mention who else in your community — a church group, labor union, neighborhood association — shares your views, especially if they’re from a different background or hold different ideological beliefs from you. 

Perhaps the most important advice I can give, though — and I speak from experience — is that how you say it is as important as what you say. It helps to be constructive, to find a way not only to raise a problem but then help your legislator find a way to solve it. It’s important to listen as well as to speak — to learn more about your lawmaker’s position and gain some insight into how this issue might be playing in Congress. 

Be patient, since some issues demand time for deliberation and consultation before your legislator can give you a commitment, and be unfailingly courteous; knowing how to disagree without being disagreeable is the surest way I know to earn an elected official’s respect. 

Above all, be open to compromise. Making some progress toward your goal is better than none at all. 

And finally, relax! Say what you want to say, and enjoy your exchanges with your representative. We live in a democracy, and my experience has been that participating in it is both a privilege and a pleasure. I hope that’s what you discover, too. 

(Lee Hamilton was a Member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years and is now Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University.)