once received a letter from a constituent that opened: “If you were only honest...” You can readily understand my reaction. It was — it’s safe to say — not the most effective letter I ever received.
I think of that letter when I’m asked to explain to groups how they could most effectively talk to their elected representatives. Basically it’s not all that difficult and varies little, if at all, from the way you visit with your friends and neighbors. I know many say that the little guy just can’t get heard in Washington anymore, and that government is run by a few big interests. But as a former member of Congress, I can tell you that you don’t need a fat wallet in order to get your point across to your elected officials in Washington. There are a number of ways to make your views known if you are willing to reject cynicism toward government and make an effort to practice active citizenship.
Whatever your reason for contacting your member of Congress — because you are having problems with a federal agency, your community needs a new road or bridge, or you feel strongly about a particular policy issue — you’ll make more headway if you follow a few basic rules: Get your facts straight. Make your case concisely. Be civil. State clearly what you want your elected official to do. Be persistent. And here’s a key tip, one that will set you apart from the crowd: If you are trying to persuade your congressman to approve or reject a piece of legislation, tell a personal story about how you think that bill would make your life better (or worse). Congressional offices are flooded with “canned” appeals that come in on mass-mailed postcards, via e-mail and by telephone or fax. Much more memorable and effective are messages that reflect direct personal experience.
Personal contact with your congressman is also particularly helpful. When he or she holds a public meeting in town, show up and ask a question or make a point. Most politicians make the rounds to parades, festivals and other community events; stop them and talk for a minute — if you are sincere, polite and succinct, you will make an impression.
Also, joining together with others, especially organized groups, will add your voice to other voices and will make it easier for your views to be heard in Washington.
Another good way to connect with elected officials is to work with them on projects they favor — like improving a road or building a new school — or volunteer to work on their campaign. Congressmen, just like you, typically feel gratitude to those who help them achieve their goals.
You may feel you don’t have time to write a letter, press your case in person, or help on a project or campaign. Many of us are busy with careers and family. This doesn’t mean you are powerless in Washington. You have one thing that every politician wants: a vote and an ability to influence other votes. Invite candidates to come to your group and ask for your support, then sound them out on the issues that concern you. At the very least, vote, because voting makes elected officials more responsive.
Communication is a two-way process. As you talk to your representatives in Congress, also don’t forget to listen to what they say or write. You might learn how to better influence them, but you will also probably learn that the issues are not as clear-cut as you believed. You will find that members weigh many competing interests and opinions when they vote, and are not simply swayed by big campaign contributions and special-interest lobbying. You might even learn that they are not quite the unresponsive — or dishonest — folks you first imagined.
One other thing. You will probably enjoy the process of participation and gain a measure of satisfaction that you are doing your part as a good citizen. You may feel that you are having an impact and find that you are not quite as cynical about the process as you once were. Almost certainly you will recognize that government is not some alien force; it is you, me — all of us. And we all have the right, the responsibility, and the capacity to influence its course.
Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.