How to Talk to Congress
As this year begins with a new president and new Congress taking power, more people than ever want to know how to make their voices heard in Congress. As the Legislative Counsel at EFF, my job is to help the organization and our supporters reach out to Congress more effectively. We've put together this guide in order to share some of our findings about how best to impact decisions in government. This represents years of trial and error at EFF as well as my own experience working in Congress and Washington, D.C. for a number of years before joining the organization.
What Is the Best Way to Communicate with Congress?
At EFF, we have had success asking our supporters to call their lawmakers, email them, and contact them over social media. Each tactic has its advantages and disadvantages, depending on the situation.
When an issue is time-sensitive—for example, a vote in the coming days—you have to pick up the phone and call your representative and two senators to voice your opinion. All other forms of communication such as emails, faxes, and letters take an office weeks to process before they are ever seen by a decision-maker.
Social media campaigns (Twitter campaigns, posts on lawmakers' Facebook pages, etc.) can also be powerful, both because they spread the word publicly and because many staffers are watching social media streams. Each tweet may not have as much impact as a phone call (and we recommend you do both), but when thousands of people participate at once, these campaigns can and do make a difference, particularly when elected officials are contemplating how an issue is covered by the press. Some members of Congress actively watch their own Twitter and Facebook feeds—there have even been times when lawmakers have directly referred to our social media campaigns in their arguments on the floor of Congress. One drawback of social media campaigns is that it can be difficult for lawmakers to tell which tweets are coming from their own constituents.
Twitter campaigns are sometimes the last option when there is very little time left before a vote. Phone calls are typically tallied at the end of the day, whereas an outpouring on Twitter might be noticed in real time the same day as a vote.
In more long-term situations—say, demanding oversight over a federal agency, supporting a bill that is not scheduled for a vote, or demanding that your elected official take a policy position—you can send in an email and meet with the district office (or Washington office if you are traveling there). EFF created a tool called democracy.io to make it as easy as possible for people to write to their members of Congress.
Quality is important: the more personal the communication, the more impact it has on the elected official's thinking. In our Action Center campaigns, we usually provide default text to use in your letter, but we encourage you to edit it to reflect your own experience. We've also seen that referencing recent news articles in your emails or letters can be helpful. Be sure that you also reference the specific bill number you're writing about, and say that you are a constituent. And if you have time, sending a physical letter through snail mail can add a personal touch.
Lastly, one of the most powerful ways to talk to a member of Congress is to attend their townhall meetings and speak to them directly. These are usually hosted when Congress is not in session (see the calendar for 2017 here) and are announced through the member's online newsletter, which you can subscribe to by visiting their website. Townhalls are typically announced 1 to 3 days before they are hosted, so you need to be vigilant. Meeting with staff at the district office or in Washington, D.C., is valuable in conveying public opinion. Those can be set up at any time simply by calling the office (every office line is listed on their congressional website) and asking for a meeting. Just make sure you are calling the right office (go here to look up your House representatives. and go here for your senators) because, again, they will only want to hear from their constituents. For more information on how to set up and prepare for a meeting with a congressional staffer, see our page on contacting Congress.
How are Congressional Offices Structured to Process Public Opinion?
Every member of Congress has two sets of offices, one in Washington, D.C., and district offices in areas where their constituents live. D.C. staffers are responsible for researching and advising senators and representatives on the hundreds of issues Congress covers each year. For virtually every bill that goes through Congress, each member will have a staffer responsible for researching and advising them on that bill. Staffers' advice is influenced by a variety of sources such as local press coverage, national press, research papers, personal experience, lobbyists, and most importantly, voter opinion back home. In addition to these policy staffers, every office has a group of staff who receive your communication (email, phone calls, or letters) and ensure that you get a response. See below for information on how to interpret those responses.
The district office is staffed by people who do "casework;" essentially, that means they work on helping voters back home navigate and understand the federal government services available to them. Sometimes a district staffer will also be the subject matter expert, but that's the exception. That doesn't mean your opinion won't be heard back home, though: district staffers are responsible for meeting with voters and delivering their opinions to the right staff who will help get you a response. If you want to meet with an office in person and don't plan to travel to D.C., you should meet with the district office.
Does My Member of Congress Read My Communication?
This is one of the most common questions we get about Congress. The answer is that it depends on the member. We can say two things for certain, though. First, Congress will never hear you if you never communicate with it. Second, every communication is read and processed in some manner to keep the member informed about what voters back home think.
I have personally worked for a member of Congress who read every single new letter that came to the office and was directly involved with staff-drafted responses. In other words, when a constituent wrote about an issue that was new to the office, the member read the letter and approved the response letter. Once the member's position on an issue was established, staffers could reuse previous responses. These are called form-letter responses.
To give an example of how this works, imagine going into the district office to meet with a staffer to voice your opinion on an EFF issue such as defending encryption. That district staffer may not know the details of the issue or what experts are saying, but they will take notes about your opinion and then send that to the D.C. office so that you get a response. Once your communication is received in D.C., the staff responsible for encryption as a policy matter will check if the member of Congress has taken a position in a form letter they approved and then will immediately send it your way. If they do not have an approved response, then the legislative staff responsible for the issue will be involved in writing a response for approval and will send it through a process to formalize the public statement of that member of Congress. At the end of that process, you can be sure that the written statement you receive represents their official position and that your communication is directly involved in the decision-making process.
Every letter, phone call, or email you send is absolutely critical because frankly, most people do not take the time to contact Congress. When people do rally in sizable numbers, no amount of special interest and campaign contributions can override the perceived opinion of voters back home and how that impacts an elected official's electoral concerns. The more confident a member of Congress feels in the number of people who will vote for them back home if they vote their way, the more resistant they become to opposing influence.
I Got a Response, What Does It Mean?
There are two kinds of letters congressional offices send back to voters. One is crystal clear about their position on the issue because they have settled on their opinion (though that can always be changed with enough of a push from voters back home) and the other is less clear. The "undecided" responses recite various facts about the issue and then conclude with stating that they will "keep your thoughts in mind" or something to that effect. These types of letters happen because the member of Congress remains undecided or simply does not want to take a public position at that time.
Until you have a firm commitment that is favorable to you established by your elected official, you should assume that you have to continue to advocate as a voter and organize others to do the same. Many issues worth fighting for do not get resolved quickly; they require sustained activism on the part of voters to really bring about change. That being said, movements that are persistent, motivated, and widespread regularly bring about changes in law or stop bad changes from happening in Congress. The only parties that do not want you to believe you can make change happen are the special interests that reside in D.C. because they depend on voters back home being silent.
How Do I Get Started and Join the Fight with EFF?
At EFF, we are preparing for the new congressional session and administration and will aggressively fight for your constitutional rights to privacy, free speech, as well as protecting a free and open Internet. However, all of our work depends on you augmenting our voice with your support. So please sign up for our action alerts, make those calls and send those emails when we put out the word, follow what is going on in Congress on our blog, and most importantly, organize your friends and family to join you in standing up for free speech, promoting innovation, and ending the surveillance state.