Tips for Working with Elected Officials
|(Comments from a congressional staffer)|
If a message becomes urgent (maybe due to an upcoming vote), phone calls to both the district and the DC offices are an effective way of letting a Member of Congress know how his or her constituents feel. Keep the message quick and simple. Long explanations or passionate arguments make it difficult for staff to convey the message to the Member, and they often keep staff from responding to other calls.
If an issue is pending but not urgent, thoughtful letters and emails from constituents are read and usually a response is sent. Most Members have a policy of not responding to people who live outside their districts, simply because they have limited resources for responding to high volumes of mail. Mail campaigns and petitions do get attention, even if responses are not sent to everyone who wrote or signed-in.
The most efficient letters are brief and concise. If a request is being made, it should be clearly stated at the beginning of the letter. If the request is concerning legislation, a bill name and/or number should be included.
Do Your Homework:
Before embarking upon a persuasion campaign, research the Member's position on an issue. It doesn't help to contact an office to ask for support of a cause he or she already supports and is working on it. Calls and letters thanking a Member for their support are appreciated, but may not be the best use of volunteer time.
A group or an organization may want to communicate its agenda more thoroughly than through a general letter, or they may want to establish an on-going relationship with a Member of Congress. In this case, it's usually easier to work directly with staff than to try and get an appointment with the Congressperson or Senator, and can be just as productive in terms of advancing your agenda. (An exception may be when the Member of Congress has a personal connection to the organization or someone within it.)
Most elected officials have assigned members of their staff to specific issue areas. If you don't know who on a staff is handling your issue, you can just call the main line for the office and ask. You will probably be transferred directly to him/her.
Usually, legislative issues are handled by Legislative Aides in the DC offices and local issues are handled by Field Representatives in the District Offices. There is always cross-over between field and legislative staff, so staffers working on the same issue try to stay apprised of each others projects and meetings. Field Reps should be familiar with major legislation in their issue areas and Leg Aides should know which groups are meeting with staff in the District. Staff in the District and in DC regularly meets with constituents and organizations.
It is important for elected officials and their staff to try and keep apprised of media coverage, both local and national, but it is difficult to stay on top of all news stories and editorials. Emailing staff an article or a Letter to the Editor is helpful and appreciated, and it gives your issue or organization added attention.
Members of Congress and their staff are public servants and they have an obligation to be responsive to their constituents. They want to know what their constituents care about, but often get overwhelmed with multiple requests for information, meetings, or events.
Simple requests are the easiest to respond to quickly. Letting staff know about bills to cosponsor or 'Dear Colleague' letters that they can sign onto can set a nice precedent for working together on future projects.
If you are asking for a letter of support for your organization, provide a draft letter for staff to use. This usually results in a better final product
And specifically on the issue of International Aid:
Even with the help of celebrities and others who are working to bring the issues of extreme poverty and AIDS to our attention, this can still be a difficult issue area for some Members of Congress to support because it doesn't directly bring money or jobs home to their states or districts, and media coverage is scarce.
It may help to target those Members and staff people who have a natural inclination toward this issue. Check the biographies which are posted on Members' websites to see if they served in the Peace Corps or have shown interest in international affairs through other activities.
Lastly, this issue brings together extremely diverse Members of Congress from the very conservative to ultra-liberal. It is truly bipartisan, so no Member should be ignored based on party affiliation.