Communicating with Congress

Myra Khan, Education for All Campaign Associate
November 29, 2011

I recently attended a presentation by Brad Fitch, president and CEO of The Congressional Management Foundation (CMF). The presentation was focused on results from The Foundation’s latest study: How Citizen Advocacy is Changing Mail Operations on Capitol Hill. As someone who is mostly involved with research support for the RESULTS Educational Fund’s Education for All campaign, I was fascinated to get a glimpse into the legislative impact of advocacy work. Although I’ve contacted my representatives before, I didn’t quite understand what happens on the other side after my message has been received. Whenever I do contact a representative I’m always amazed by how easy it is. So easy, that sometimes I’m left wondering if my message really was registered, and if so, by whom? Is there a better way I could communicate? Do they even care?

Fortunately, CMF has made it its mission to research such questions. The answer to the last question incidentally is: yes, they do care. CMF’s Communicating with Congress reports show that congressional offices definitely prioritize constituent communication. The reports also show that the ease with which we can contact our representatives has seriously impacted the volume of communications in congressional offices. In fact, according to one of the CMF reports, some congressional offices have experienced a 1000 percent increase in communications volume in the past decade, but without the increase in staff necessary to handle such volumes. It is important for grassroots advocates to get a sense of this context and understand how it can impact the way their messages are regarded.

With this much constituent communication going on, how can you make your message meaningful and memorable? Congressional offices pay attention to the content of messages they receive.  Instead of simply stating that you support or oppose a bill, make it personal by illustrating why. Discuss the impact it would have on your particular district or state. Tell a story.  Show photographs.

 

The data shows that contact from constituents is influential particularly when a representative has not made up his or her mind on an issue:

Social media tools provide a new way to find the “congressional conversation” and join in. One CMF report shows nearly two-thirds of staff (64 percent) think Facebook is an important way to understand constituent views and nearly three-quarters (74 percent) think it is important for communicating their members’ views.

For examples of how to use Facebook and Twitter in communicating with Congress, make sure to check out this blog post by Meredith Dodson, director of RESULTS U.S. Poverty Campaigns.  

The bottom line is: informed, sustained advocacy — the type undertaken by RESULTS volunteers —  works. Here are five tips from Ben Fitch to keep in mind during your next congressional outreach effort:

5 Rules for Influencing Lawmakers

·         Learn about your Legislator

·         Be a “normal” expert

·         Communicate frequently

·         Follow up to get a firm answer

·         Tell a personal story

Mr. Fitch ended his presentation with fitting quote by Thomas Jefferson: “We in American do not have government by the majority. We have government by the majority who participate”.

Keep up the participation RESULTS volunteers!

 

(Click here to read more of CMF's reports on Communicating with Congress)