A Guide to Communicating with Members of Congress
Elected officials count on, and in fact need, constituent input to be effective legislators. Ongoing communication is the only way public representatives will know and understand how you, the voter, feel about particular issues.
You can be most effective in conveying a message by relating issues to your own personal experience or professional expertise, or to the likely effects on a member’s constituents.
Most Effective Means to Communicate with Your Member of Congress
- Identify clearly the subject or subjects in which you are interested, not just House and Senate bill numbers.
- State why you are concerned about an issue or issues. Your own personal experience, particularly as a member of the medical community, is excellent supporting evidence. Explain how you think an issue will affect patients, the medical profession, your community or family.
- Restrict yourself to one, or at most, two topics.
- Put thoughts in your own words. If a member of Congress receives numerous letters with nearly identical wording, he or she may discount them as part of an organized pressure campaign.
- Try to establish an ongoing relationship with your representative or senators. In general, you will have more influence as a constituent.
- Communicate while legislation is being considered by congressional committees and subcommittees, as well as when it is on the House and Senate floor.
- Find out the committees and subcommittees on which your representative or senators serve. Members of Congress have much more influence over legislation within their committees’ and subcommittees’ jurisdiction.
- Use the AMA Grassroots Hotline at 1-800-833-6354 to Call Congress Today!
- Ever, ever threaten. Don’t ever hint “I’ll never vote for you unless you do what I want.” Present the best arguments in favor of your position and ask for their consideration.
- Pretend to wield vast political influence. Contact your member as a constituent, not a self-appointed spokesperson for the medical community.
- Use trite phrases or clichés. They can make your letter sound mass-produced when it isn’t. Just be yourself.
- Become a pen pal. Some congressional offices will discount mail from seemingly tireless letter writing constituents.
- Link campaign contributions to legislative support.
Suggestions for a Personal Visit
Plan Your Visit Carefully.
Be clear about what it is you want to achieve; determine in advance which member or committee staff you need to meet with to achieve your purpose.
Make an Appointment.
When attempting to meet with a member, contact the Appointment Secretary/Scheduler. Explain your purpose and whom you represent. It is easier for congressional staff to arrange a meeting if they know what you wish to discuss and your relationship to the area or interests represented by the member.
Be Prompt and Patient.
When it is time to meet with a member, be punctual and be patient. It is not uncommon for a Congressman or Congresswoman to be late, or to have a meeting interrupted due to the member’s crowded schedule. If interruptions do occur, be flexible. When the opportunity presents itself, continue your meeting with a member’s staff.
Whenever possible, bring to the meeting information and materials supporting your position. Members are required to take positions on many different issues. In some instances, a member may lack important details about the pros and cons of a particular matter. It is therefore helpful to share with the member information and examples that demonstrate clearly the impact or benefits associated with a particular issue or piece of legislation.
Members of Congress want to represent the best interests of their district or state. Whenever possible, demonstrate the connection between what you are requesting and the interests of the member’s constituency. If possible, describe for the member how you or your tour group can be of assistance to him/her. When it is appropriate, remember to ask for a commitment.
Be prepared to answer questions or provide additional information in the event the member expresses interest or asks questions. Follow up the meeting with a thank-you letter that outlines the different points covered during the meeting, and send along any additional information and materials requested.
The Roles of the Congressional Staff
To be most effective in communication with Congress, it is helpful to know the titles and primary functions of key staff. The following is a list of commonly used titles and job functions:
Administrative Assistant (AA) or Chief of Staff (CoS)
The AA reports directly to the member of Congress. The AA usually has overall responsibility for evaluating the political outcomes of various legislative proposals and constituent requests. The AA is usually the person in charge of overall office operations, including the assignment of work and the supervision of key staff.
Legislative Director (LD) and Legislative Assistants (LA)
The LD or the LA is usually the staff person who monitors the legislative agenda and makes recommendations regarding the pros and cons of particular issues. Most congressional offices include several LAs and responsibilities are assigned to staff with particular expertise in specific areas. For example, depending on the responsibilities and interests of the member, an office may designate a different LA for health issues, environmental matters, taxes, etc.
Press Secretary or Communications Director
The Press Secretary’s responsibility is to build and maintain open and effective lines of communication between the member and the general public through the media. The Press Secretary is expected to know the benefits, demands, and special requirements of both print and electronic media, and how to most effectively promote the member’s views or position on specific issues.
Appointment Secretary or Scheduler
The Scheduler is usually responsible for allocating a member’s time arise from congressional responsibilities, staff requirements and constituent requests. The Scheduler may also be responsible for making necessary travel arrangements, arranging speaking dates, visits to the district, etc.
The Caseworker is the staff members usually assigned to solve individual constituent problems or projects important to a local community. The Caseworker’s responsibilities may include helping resolve problems constituents present in a relation to federal agencies, e.g. Social Security and Medicare issues, veteran’s benefits, passports, etc. There are often several Caseworkers in a congressional office.
Other Staff Titles
Other titles used in a congressional office may include: Executive Assistant, Legislative Correspondent, Executive Secretary, Office Manager, and Receptionist.
Suggested Steps and Actions
- Develop what you want to say and put it in your handout or materials.
- Know the members and key staff and their background if possible.
- Know the congressional procedure.
- Practice a meeting.
- Arrange for a meeting with the member (or staff) either in D.C. or their state or district office.
- Re-confirm the meeting
- Your meeting group should be made up of six people or less. (Include people who know the member, who represent each group, and who are familiar with the plan.)Meetings should be prepared, fifteen minute meeting with the member or 30 minutes with staff.
- Be on time — while you are with the member, do not keep looking at your watch.
- Indicate how important this project is to the community and that the member is key to its success.
- If they are members who have helped you in the past, thank them.
- Always be positive.
- Evaluate the meeting after you leave the member.
- Send a letter to the member and the staff thanking them for their time and briefly going over the key points.
- Prepare a report for each of your groups.
- Keep current as the legislation develops.