FAS Public Interest Report
The Journal of the Federation of American Scientists
March/April 2001
Volume 54, Number 2
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Front Page
Degraded Lands: South China's Untapped Resource
U.S. Stalls BWC Protocol Negotiations
NMD Q&A
Dual-Use Exports Liberalized
Making Your Views Heard to Congress
Another Intelligence Review Underway

Making your views heard to Congress

By Robert Sherman

Knowing that I spent 25 years on Congressional staff, people sometimes ask me if the best way to communicate with a senator or representative is by letter or telephone. The answer, I can say with 100% confidence, is neither.

Mail is answered by legislative correspondents, who are entry-level people at the bottom of the legislative ladder. Their primary responsibility is to crank out responses to the ever-increasing flood of mail as quickly as possible. It is not to carefully analyze the letter, nor to seek new thoughts to be brought to the attention of the principal, nor to analyze political trends. Form letters and form paragraphs are used at every opportunity, so that a letter can be answered after the briefest skim-read. Only a small proportion of legislative mail is seen by the specialist legislative assistant; hardly any is seen by the principal. In some offices the mail flow is tabulated by subject and position, but the tabulation is given little weight in determining the legislator's position. In other offices, mail is not tabulated.

Telephone calls have even less impact. They are answered by the receptionist, who is at most a professional chosen for efficiency and pleasantness, or at least an intern. The receptionist's job is to politely accept the call and move on. Telephone calls are rarely tabulated.

Petitions or form cards are even less effective unless they come in extremely large numbers. In all cases, the office objective is to give the constituent satisfaction for having communicated and for receiving a prompt and efficient response. That is all.

In no sense does this superficial treatment of constituent mail and telephone calls mean that legislators don't care about constituent opinion. On the contrary, they well understand that constituent opinion will determine their political life or death. But they also understand that mail and telephone calls are not accurate measures of public opinion. For that, they rely on expensive professional polls and focus groups paid for by campaign funds. How, then, can a citizen who can't make large campaign contributions get his/her views to the attention of a senator or representative? Here are two ways.

  1. Publish a letter to the editor in which the legislator's name is prominently mentioned. Every House office does a daily or weekly press review in which every mention of the member is circulated to, and closely read by, every staffer and by the representative or small-state senator. (Senators from large states may not have time to look at the smaller newspapers.) Your letter can applaud or condemn the principle's position, or it can discuss how "Congressman Jones, who is capable and honorable, hasn't yet announced his view of the issue." Either way, your words will reach their target. There are two reasons for this. First, the legislator knows that many are reading your words, and for that reason alone they need to be taken seriously. Second, there is an intuitive presumption that anything that gets into print reflects not only the view of the writer but the view of many others; true or not, it is presumed to be true unless there is evidence to the contrary.

  2. If you have an original slant on the issue, telephone your way up the legislative staff chain. Telephone the Washington office and ask to speak to the legislative staffer who works on the issue in question. Most likely you will be told he/she will return your call, and possibly he/she won't. Keep trying and you will get through. If you hold a Nobel laureate or other exceptional credentials, you can use these to gain direct and immediate access to the principal or the legislative staffer. But don't waste your access to this route to simply state an opinion; that would only leave the representative or the legislative staffer feeling annoyed that you wasted his/her time telling him/her what he/she already knew. Use it only if you have a genuinely new idea.

Bottom line: One letter to the editor, or one moment with the principal or legislative specialist, is worth more than a thousand letters or phone calls to the front desk.