The right of a U.S. constituent to “petition the government for a redress of grievances” is enshrined in the First Amendment. However, contacting any of the 535 voting members of Congress or 49 congressional committees by letter does not have to be for righting wrongs only. It is an effective strategy for engaging powerful lawmakers in sponsorship, policymaking and dealing with federal agencies. Given the considerable volume of correspondence reaching Congress, a tightly-focused, formal approach is advisable to yield favorable results.
How to Write a Congressman
A constituent may choose to write to a congressman to resolve a personal, local or national issue. If the issue relates to a specific person or area, it is best to address the congressman representing that constituency and ideally, you will have first attempted to seek redress at a state or local government level. There is no restriction, however, on writing a congressman outside your constituency. The House of Representatives website provides a straightforward way to find your local congressman, while GovTrack maintains a searchable database of all bills currently passing through Congress, along with their sponsors.
Upon finding the correct recipient, prepare a brief, formal and respectful letter that establishes who you are, your credentials on the matter in hand, specific information about the issue and what further action you envisage. Letters should be addressed to “The Honorable Mr./Mrs. [Surname],” with “Dear Representative/Senator” as the salutation, although “Dear Mr./Mrs.” is also acceptable. All correspondence addressed to Congress is entered in the constituent-management system and made available as public record. Bear in mind that a letter to a congressman is not private.
Why You Would Need to Write a Congressman
Writing a congressman guarantees that your letter will be logged and addressed. A phone call or email may be quicker, but both systems can be inundated during crisis periods. That said, the Senate received more than six million letters in 2016 alone, with each letter having to pass security screening, so mail can be less effective for urgent issues or mass campaigns. Because the constituent service records each letter, there is at least a public record about the issue. Furthermore, a letter sets up a more formal context for correspondence and allows the sender to include relevant documentation supporting the appeal. For the same reason, it is best to keep each letter to a single topic to make it easier for the congressman to deal with it thoroughly and effectively.
Why Team Up with a Congressman
Engaging the support of a congressman can be for civic or political reasons. As lawmakers, they have the power to intercede and advocate on matters such as Social Security, IRS, Immigration and other federal agency battles. The sponsorship of a congressman is also beneficial when nominating a candidate for the U.S. Military, Naval, Air Force or Merchant Marine academies, or requesting an honor guard for a veteran funeral. A congressman may also be able to advise and collaborate on securing federal grants for an organization. Where the issue is political, raising awareness of an issue with a congressman is also a proactive way to influence legislation. Congressmen do not merely vote on bills. They may be intimately be involved at the drafting and committee stage, so it is always worth alerting them to concerns or counterarguments before the bill reaches a vote.