5 Keys to Getting Your Message Across to Congress

October 29, 2013

What moves Members of Congress when they’re undecided on an issue? What’s the best way to have an impact on your Representative or Senator?

The answers might surprise you.

After working with Congressional staff and members for years, the Congressional Management Foundation has got it down to a few key strategies, which they shared in their October 17 webinar.

Here’s a key take-away:  while only 16 percent of us think Congress pays attention to us, according to public opinion research, the truth is that we are more persuasive than we may think. In fact, when a member of Congress is undecided on an issue, it is constituent input – letters, emails, office visits, town hall questions, etc. – that have the most influence. Don’t leave it to the professional paid lobbyists – your voice does matter.

Here are five elements to keep in mind to make your voice heard, and your advocacy effective:

  1. Learn about your legislator. Know his or her positions on your issue now and in the past. Check out your legislator’s social media to understand where they’re heading and what they’re thinking on your issue. Be informed about your legislator’s positions when you meet with staff or representative.
  2. Be knowledgeable and credible. Make it clear that you understand the many sides of your issue, even the arguments opposing your position. Use concrete data or facts about the impact of a particular issue or decision on people in your district. Establish your credibility so that you are seen a good source of information about the consequences, unintended and otherwise, of decisions about your issue.

    Here’s an example: Regarding a decision about health care delivery, a nurses’ association was able to point out that the change would mean that people in the district would have to drive 28 more miles each way to get a service they were currently able to get closer to home.

  3. Maintain contact frequently. Cultivate relationships with staff in the district and DC offices. Keep a staff person’s email! Weigh in on your issue regularly – remember they cover so many topics that your issue may not be their area of expertise. Make clear the impact of their decisions on real people in the district.

    Here’s a timely example:  The shutdown was especially hard on staff. Now’s a good time to check on staff you know and find out how they’re doing, were they furloughed, how bad is their backlog on returning to work, etc.

  4. Follow up and follow through. Make sure you follow up, usually by email, when a member or staff person asks for time to look into something – give them some time and then ask them what they’ve decided regarding your “ask.” Again don’t hesitate to contact staff people you have a relationship with – they may be the last person the legislator sees before casting a vote on your issue.
  5. Tell a personal story to illustrate the impact of the policy decision. This is very important.The story should be short and easily repeated, which will help members and staff remember your point and carry your message to others on the Hill.

    Here’s an example: During the shutdown, a family with a child who has cancer shared their story of being shut out of treatment services due to the shutdown – the messenger was more effective than a policy expert, doctor or paid lobbyist and the story was powerful enough to sway hearts and minds.

Here are a few more tips:

If you’re trying to schedule a meeting, try 3 or 4 weeks in advance. The best time for a DC office meeting is Wednesdays in the late afternoon.

Use telephone town hall meetings to ask a question. With an average 5000 people on the call, you’re informing not just your representative but a lot of constituents. Learn when these are scheduled by signing up for your legislator’s e-newsletter or checking their website.

Target your messages to the head, heart and health of the district. Use facts, a pertinent story and put a face on the issue as it affects your district. But keep it short and start with your most effective message.

Face-to-face meetings are great, but don’t underestimate the effectiveness of emails or letters. Individualized messages are more effective, but numbers count too. If a legislator asks “how many letters or emails have we gotten on this issue?” you don’t want the staffer to say “none.’

If you’re representative is not on the relevant committee, ask them to speak for your issue to those who are – in person, or through a letter to their colleagues.

No Time Like Right Now

The Continuing Resolution that ended the government shutdown is temporary. In the next 90 days, Congress will be working to get longer-term budget and debt ceiling deals done. There will be intense activity by members of the House and Senate Budget Committees on all aspects of the federal budget – entitlement spending, revenues, and the discretionary budget.

Things have changed. There is momentum for broad budget negotiations. The Sequester is beginning to hurt in ways that Congress can see.  Congress has been through a bruising battle with no clear “winners” and they seem to be looking to do a better job by getting a budget done.

So make your voice heard today! Use SparkAction’s Contact Congress tool to contact your elected officials. All you need is your Zip Code! It’s easy.

And while you’re at it, bookmark our Action Center for alerts on specific child- and youth-related bills, too.


Jan Richter is a retired clinical social worker and child psychotherapist, and long-time children's advocate. Read her bio here.




Janis Richter