Advocacy in action

Communicating effectively with your representatives

In the last issue of “Advocacy in action,” we discussed how a bill moves through congress to become law. Understanding that process is important if you desire to impact the outcome. All too often, the members of congress hear only one side of an issue and thus may base their decisions on incomplete or inaccurate information. Advocacy groups in Washington, such as AVMA and NPPC, attempt to express professional and industry positions on legislative activities that may affect your livelihood either positively or negatively. These groups are vitally important in the effort to provide members of congress with balanced factual information, but they do not have the impact that you can have by personally reaching out to your representative and expressing your opinion on an issue. I’ll discuss in this issue of “Advocacy in action” some tools to effectively communicate with your congressional representatives.

Due to heightened security concerns, communicating with government officials via the postal service is extremely slow. The mail is subjected to thorough scrutiny before being delivered, and thus may not always arrive in a timely manner. It is more common today to communicate via e-mail, fax, or phone. Also, your message has additional credence if you are one of their constituents.

All effective advocacy organizations have form letters or e-mails stating their position on legislation of importance to their membership. These letters are designed to be easy for the constituent to use, often by simply pressing a button. Members of congress record the amount of correspondence they receive on specific issues as one measure of the sense of their constituency. The receipt of a form letter or mass mailing, however, does not usually carry the same weight that a personal letter, phone call, or office visit does. For this reason, advocacy groups like AVMA or NPPC will call on their memberships to contact their representatives personally about an issue. This can be an intimidating process for the average person. Following are some suggestions on how to make your voice heard more effectively.

If communicating with congress via e-mail, fax, or letter, state your purpose in the first sentence of the letter. Mention the specific piece of legislation you are writing about, using its official designation if possible (ie, HR– or S–). If you’re one of their constituents, let them know that and explain to them how this legislation impacts you and their constituency. Offer to provide them with additional information if necessary and follow up with requests for information. Limit each correspondence to one issue. Be courteous and polite. Written correspondence should be addressed as follows:

To a senator:

The Honorable (full name)
United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510

Dear Senator (last name):

To a representative:

The Honorable (full name)
United States House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515

Dear Mr/Mrs/Ms (last name):

A phone call may be even more effective than written correspondence. Phone calls are usually answered by an administrative assistant. Tell the assistant why you are calling and ask to speak to the staff member in charge of your issue. Identify yourself as a constituent and inform the staffer that you would like to leave a message for the senator or representative regarding your support or opposition to a specific piece of legislation. Ask the staffer for the member’s position on the issue and explain the reasons for your position. Also, inform the staffer of the impact of this issue on you and his or her constituency.

Probably the most effective means of communication is a personal visit to the member’s office. Members of congress appreciate the opportunity to meet with their constituents. To make the meeting as effective as possible, it’s important to be prepared, punctual, patient, and political. Make an appointment and arrive on time. Understand that it is not uncommon for the representative to be late or to have the meeting interrupted due to the member’s crowded schedule. Define the issue you wish to discuss and provide materials supporting your position. Describe for the member how you or the group you represent can be of assistance to the member. Follow up the meeting with a thank-you note and include any additional information requested during the meeting.

These suggestions should encourage you to make the effort to reach out to your elected officials about issues of interest to you. Remember, they are there to serve your interests, but they need to know how an issue or piece of legislation will impact you. You can rest assured that the opposition is making sure its opinion is being heard. Groups like HSUS and Keep Antibiotics Working (KAW) are well financed and have active members ready and willing to provide congress with their side of the story. Frequent and effective communication is the key to insuring that your representatives understand the impact of their decisions. Don’t let the opposition frame the message for you.

-- Harry Snelson, DVM