It’s important to be politically involved, and I’m not just saying this because I studied political science, or because my first job out of college was in the governor’s office of my home state. We have an obligation to participate in public life, to use our privileged time and voices to speak for those among us who cannot speak for themselves.
But if that leaves you feeling lost and confused, you’re not alone. One of the most popular — and most effective — methods of getting involved beyond voting is to contact your members of Congress and make sure they know where you stand on a variety of issues. (Side note, if you’re not registered to vote, or are not sure if you’re registered, it’s easy to fix! Check out vote.gov.)
Contacting your congressional representatives can seem overwhelming if you’ve never done it before — and even if you have! But just remember: you’re one human being, talking to another, expressing your opinion in the hopes that it impacts their job performance. And most representatives want to hear from you! When I worked in the governor’s office, it’s true that not every letter was read or call answered by the man-in-charge himself. But he certainly took these calls, letters, and even tweets into consideration. Hearing from constituents is how they know what’s working and what’s not.
If you’re ready to reach out to your members of Congress on an important issue, I’m here to answer your burning questions. I’m certainly no expert, but I’ve been on both ends of these calls before, so I have a little bit of an idea of what works and what doesn’t. So, here goes: your one-stop, three-step guide to making a political impact by contacting your members of Congress.
Whom you’ll be speaking with
The first thing you’ve got to do is figure out how you want to make contact. You’ve got several options, with varying levels of effort and each with their own pros and cons. But to make sense of them, here’s a little bit of background first.
No matter which method you choose, it’s pretty unlikely that your letter, email, or phone call will end up directly in the hands of your elected leader. It depends on the individual to an extent and the seat of government (if you contact your state representative or mayor, there’s a pretty good chance they might actually read it themselves), but you should generally operate under the assumption that someone else will be reading and summarizing your argument.
The second thing you need to know is how government offices are set up. Each office is a little different, but typically you’ll have staffers specializing in certain responsibilities, including constituent services and press.
Constituent services offices tend to handle any relations with people served by the representative — hearing and responding to people’s concerns, putting together proclamations for special days, and the like. A press office will handle the most public-facing aspects of the representative’s day, from press conferences and statements to crisis response and overall image.
A front desk staff will often work with both of these teams, but especially with constituent services because they’re the ones who take most of the calls. And all these teams work closely with policymakers, legal teams, legislative staffers, and more.
Why does this matter? Because how you get in contact determines who might read or listen to what you have to say — and whether it makes an impact.
How to get in contact
There’s general agreement that, if you have a choice, making a direct call to the office of your member of Congress is the best way to make an impact. A twitter thread from a former congressional staffer explained the reason why well: “The most effective thing is to actually call them on the phone. At their district (state) office. They have to talk to you there.”
The argument goes like this: letters can get lost, and emails don’t always get read. Especially in heavily populated districts, it can be impossible to keep up with every piece of correspondence that comes in. But you have to answer the phone, every time it rings.
We’ll get into district vs. D.C. offices more below, but district offices tend to be the “home base” for constituent services staff, so you’re more likely to speak to someone who’s going to effectively pass on the message because it’s their job. They can also be less busy during legislative session, while the D.C. office will be dealing with a flurry of law and votes.
Now, with that being said, a few caveats from yours truly. I hate speaking on the phone. Absolutely hate it. And there are many people out there who can’t even use a phone, for one reason or another. For these and several other reasons, it’s always better to contact your congressperson in any way you can than to not reach out at all.
Though there’s varying levels of trust in email, mail, or social media communication — including in the Twitter thread referenced above — my experience has been that reaching out, no matter the medium, is impactful. If you tweet or post on Facebook, your post is more likely to be read and collected by a member of the press office than constituent services, but it’s still going to get tracked in a constituent management system (the fancy ways congressional offices track who contacts them about what, and how many times).
Posts on social media and anything that doesn’t reference your zip code or where you live will be taken with a grain of salt. Any person of Congress is going to value the opinion of someone who can vote in their district more than a stranger with a fake profile picture. I personally think an email or a submitted form is a little easier than a handwritten letter because it’s easier for a staffer to scan and identify your argument — plus it might be less work for you.
The thing to remember at the end of the day is that typically, what you say, write, or post will be condensed down to a contact on one side or the other of an argument, possibly with a “comment” attached. So don’t stress too much about how to get in contact, just take that first step and show up.
Finding their info
If you’re convinced to talk to your congressperson – good! But how? Tt’s pretty easy to find out who your representatives are, and the best ways to get in contact with them.
First, you’ve got to determine who you’d like to speak with. Is this a federal issue? Then you want your senators and representatives. If it’s closer to home, you might want a state senator or a local congressperson, or even your alderperson or mayor for a city issue.
At the federal level, you can find your U.S. Senators by going to Senate.gov and checking the top right corner for your state. There, you’ll find the names and contact information for your state’s two senators, plus a link to their websites, which will have more information. You can find your representative at house.gov by submitting your zip code.
At the state level, things get a little more complicated. Every state does things differently, so the best way to find your representatives is to simply search “find my state representatives” (or “senators”) and add the name of your state. Then, you’ll be able find the sites for your state’s governing body, which can lead you to your representatives.
You’ll notice that house.gov and senate.gov sites give an address and phone number in Washington, D.C. — that’s what we referred to earlier as the D.C. office. Each federal representative will also have offices in their home district, usually in the state capitol and major hubs for senators, and somewhere within the home district itself for representatives. That’s where your constituent services staff will be, and it’s how you have the best chance of getting through.
What to say
So, you’ve done your research, you have someone on the line — now what?
What you say will largely come down to the particular issue, but there are a few ground rules you can keep in mind:
Always mention your zip code — it’s how they know you’re a constituent.
Start by stating clearly and simply your stance or opinion on the issue at hand. It helps if you can reference a particular bill or other action you’d like them to take, and clearly state which side of the issue you’re on.
You can always make an appeal for why you believe what you do, but in reality this is less important than making the stance itself known. Especially when things get busy, staffers will simply tally up a list of the “pro” and “con” reactions they get to an issue, along with any particular comments that stand out, and that’s what ends up getting delivered to the representative. Don’t feel the need to know everything about an issue — you’re not going to get quizzed, and the future of this bill does not depend on your ability to eloquently articulate every pro and con. It depends on theirs.
Finally: have heart. If you do choose to make a passionate appeal, make it personal. The representative or their staffers are more likely to listen, connect with you, and agree with you if they can see the reason behind it. An example of this: I’m often contacting reps about bills having to do with ALS and other rare diseases, so I always share a bit about my experience watching my grandma die from it. It’s harder to ignore a constituent who has a very real connection to the issue.
And most importantly: say something. Even if you stumble through every word, are incredibly nervous, or lose the bill name or number, you’ve done an important and incredible thing in participating in the political sphere.
St. Pope John Paul II said that “the lay faithful” — that’s us — “are never to relinquish their participation in public life.” Many might assume that we shouldn’t mix Church and state, but JPII argues that full participation in a democratic government is essential to bringing forth the common good in a society.
In short, even when we’re coming from values rooted in faith, we need to raise our voices in the political arena. The separation of church and state prevents an oppressive state-sponsored religion; it does not mean people of faith should avoid bringing their convictions to bear in debating the issues of the day. Sitting on the sidelines diminishes our democracy because our viewpoints and values deserve to compete in the marketplace of ideas.
So speak up, speak often, and be proud of yourself for being part of a movement.