A majority of Americans think the U.S. government is broken for many reasons. They think politicians aren’t listening to constituents’ concerns and they think Washington isn’t getting anything done, and frankly there’s some truth to this. The government is so large, it’s become an art to navigate it. Because we’ve been working in and around the government for years, we can help you navigate some of these choppy waters.
First and foremost, remember, our government is slow-moving and extremely complex. There are a lot of variables that influence elected officials, which is why effective communication and knowing some tricks of the trade can increase the chances that your opinion is heard or has an impact.
When you get to Washington, DC, it might seem critical to meet with a dozen of representatives or senators working on a specific policy issue. However, congressional offices hear from hundreds of people a day and they typically prioritize constituents of their home state or district for meetings. For that reason, we recommend reaching out to the member of Congress or senator who represents where you live or work to schedule a meeting if you are visiting our nation’s capital. If you aren’t sure which congressional district you live or work in, you can double-check by visiting www.house.gov and entering your zip code in the top right corner. To find your Senators, go to www.senate.gov. The contact information for any congressional office is readily available on their official House or Senate website.
Before you meet with an elected official, you should always do your homework and find out ahead of time what committees they sit on in Congress and what their legislative priorities are. It’s also worth researching what Caucuses or groups they are a member of.
When you walk into a Congressional office, don’t be intimated – it may feel somewhat chaotic. The phones will be ringing, staff will be running around, and the television will likely have the House or Senate floor on. That’s why it’s important to come prepared with talking points about the issue you care about to effectively get your message across.
As you pursue your issue advocacy, remember that every piece of legislation starts as an idea. It can originate from a legislator, a staff member, a lobbyist, or an average citizen. This is one of the most important reasons why volume is so important. The more legislators hear about a particular issue, the better off you’ll be. In fact, sometimes well-argued issue advocacy meetings or letters can have a larger impact on what a legislator decides to advocate for in Washington over the flood of incoming calls they might receive on any given day.
Congressional offices receive thousands of incoming messages via mail, phone, e-mail, and fax every single day. If you want Washington’s help advocating for an issue that’s important to you, the best way to get through to elected officials is to send an inquiry through their official House or Senate website to schedule a meeting with your representative or a member of their staff – either in Washington, DC or in their District Office. When drafting your message, you should direct meeting requests to the Executive Assistant and informational correspondence to the legislative aide assigned to your particular issue area. If you aren’t sure who to direct the message to, you can call their Washington, D.C. office to find out the best person to direct your message to, and most importantly, don’t forget to identify yourself as a constituent if you reside or work in the district or state before you hit send.
If you prefer to advocate for your issue by writing to your member of Congress or Senator, attending a town hall, or visiting places in your community instead of meeting with your elected officials, remember that you have something of value to contribute. Your job is to make an issue relevant to your representatives. The goal is not to list off as many facts and figures about your issue as you can. And don’t forget, your issue is one of many. In Senate offices, there may be one staff member who specializes in a specific issue whereas on the House side, one staff member may be assigned to numerous policy issues.
Regardless, come prepared with a message you want to deliver, explain why it’s important to you, and offer to be a resource on the particular issue. Be prepared to discuss any legislation that they have worked on that is similar to your issue. If you want to mention bills that your legislator should consider cosponsoring, come prepared with a list of bill numbers and an explanation as to what the legislation does. There are thousands of bills introduced each legislative session, which makes it challenging for any staff member to keep them all straight. Lastly, try to limit your group to five people or less. Congressional offices are quite small and it’s difficult to accommodate larger groups. Sometimes groups end up meeting in the hallway where it can quickly become loud and noisy.
These are just a few tips to help navigate the process and ensure you are prepared to communicate effectively. While it may seem intimidating for anyone looking to advocate on a particular policy issue, remember that your message delivery is critical. As broken as Washington may appear, by following some of these tips you’ll stand a greater chance of making a difference and having your voice heard.