Communicating With Congress: Writing Letters
NCFR’s Global Ends, in relation to policy, state that “NCFR will provide information about the policymaking process” to NCFR members and “will raise the visibility of family research, theory, and practice to policymakers.” One method of attaining both of these Global Ends is to provide you, NCFR members, tools to communicate with Congress—or any person involved in the policymaking process from the local to the federal levels. The provision of advocacy tools also emerged as one of the top resources most important for NCFR to provide in support of members’ advocacy work, according to survey respondents (NCFR Board of Directors, 2017; bit.ly/ncfrpolicysurvey2).
Communicating with Congress can be an effective method for educating, advocating, and lobbying for issues about which you are passionate. There are several ways to communicate with Congress, from meeting individually in person, attending town-hall meetings, testifying in committee, calling, emailing, writing letters, and more. The purpose of this article is to provide tips in one such area: writing letters. Resources to help you communicate with Congress through other means are provided at the end of this article.
Finding Your Representative
An initial task when writing a letter to your representative in Congress is to determine who your elected officials are. One method for determining who represents you is to locate your representatives on the House of Representatives website (house.gov) and on the U.S. Senate website (senate.gov):
- To locate your House representative, enter your zip code in the “Find Your Representative” search box in the upper-right-hand corner of the web page. You may be redirected to a second page asking for your street address. You can also find a list of all your states’ representatives by clicking on your state in the “View Representative by State” interactive map.
- To locate the senator who represents you, click on your state in the “Find Your Senator” box in the upper-left-hand corner of the web page.
Learning About Your Representative
Knowing more about your representative will help you to be more effective in your communication. The Consortium of Social Science Association (COSSA, 2017), of which NCFR is a member, recommends that you identify the committees on which your representatives serve. You can find that information, as well as mailing and email addresses, through representatives’ individual websites. To avoid spam, your representative may require use of an email submission form (American Association for the Advancement of Science [AAAS], 2011).
Writing Your Letter
Letters can be sent through traditional mail or as an email. Congressional staff track the number of letters received on various issues. Traditionally, mailed letters are more likely to receive a response, although it may be a form letter. COSSA (2017) recommends the following tips to help write your letter:
- Planning “ahead of time what you want to say and how to say it will make your advocacy most effective” (p. 9).
- Know your “ask”—that is, what you want your representative to do. For example, do you want her or him to increase funding for Family Science research? Recognize Certified Family Life Educators as appropriate providers? Vote yes or no on a specific bill? The ask should be a prominent part of your letter.
- Explain the why—that is, why this issue is important and why the representative should take the action you are requesting. Two important elements to include in this explanation are research related to the issue and the financial implications of your ask (e.g., return on investment). It is perfectly acceptable to include your own research on the issue. Be sure to also include stories or anecdotes of how your research relates to real life.
- Keep it local—explain how your ask relates to your representative’s state, district, or constituency.
- Be succinct—your letter shouldn’t be longer than two pages, with one page being the preferred length.
AAAS (2011), of which NCFR is an affiliated member, recommends the following when writing to Congress:
- Identify yourself as a constituent—that is, that you live in the district your representative was elected to represent—it increases the chances that your letter will be read. However, one exception is when writing to members of a committee about legislation the committee is discussing. Also include your job title, credentials, affiliation, and your professional or scientific expertise.
- Be brief, clear, and courteous—congressional staffers and members receive hundreds of communications daily: “Brevity, clarity, and courtesy are the most important qualities for effective interactions” (p. 46). Each letter should address a single topic. While brevity is important, it is also important to adequately explain the issue.
- Send individual emails to representatives—if sending the same email to multiple people, it is best to send each email individually. Sending a mass email is more likely to be deleted.
- Address the letter to your representative, even if it is the legislator’s staff who will read the letter.
- Send your letter to your representative’s office in Washington, DC.
- Use plain, understandable language and avoid jargon.
AAAS’s Top 10 Rules for Working With Congress
- Know your goal.
- Understand how Congress works and makes decisions.
- Conduct detailed background research
- Use your knowledge of the legislative process to determine the timing of your course of action.
- Be clear and succinct.
- Understand congressional staff and their influence.
- Provide concrete suggestions.
- Present support of science as a means to meet national and local goals, not an entitlement.
- Be willing to say, “I don’t know.”
- Follow up appropriately.
Note: For a discussion of each of these points, see the American Association for the Advancement of Science (2011, pp. 50–55).
Formatting the Letter
Start your letter with the date and your name and address. Follow this by your representative’s name and address in Washington, DC. Be sure to address your representative as “The Honorable” followed by his or her full name.
Next, provide a salutation such as “Dear Representative [First and Last Name]” or “Dear Senator [First and Last Name].”
The main body of the letter follows. A one-page letter typically consists of three paragraphs:
- Paragraph 1 includes personal information, such as identifying oneself as a constituent, your scientific or professional expertise, and your ask. Your reason for writing (i.e., issue, bill) should be clearly detailed and concrete.
- Paragraph 2 describes the facts, such as the research and finances (e.g., return on investment) related to the issue. You do not need to include a list of references, but it is OK to refer to specific experts in text. This is a great place to include your own research, anecdotes from the legislator’s district or state, and your argument for why your representative should follow through with your ask.
- Paragraph 3 concludes the letter with your call to action. Remind your legislator of your ask. Remember to be specific. Feel free to offer your expertise should the representative want more information and include how to contact you. You can request a response. Thank your representative for considering your request.
End the letter with a closing, your name, credentials, title, and times you are available to be reached.
The body of your letter can certainly include more paragraphs. Remember, though, that a one-page, clearly written letter is best.
- If you send your letter through traditional mail, it can take two to four weeks to reach your representative because of security screenings (AAAS, 2011). Emailing or calling your representative may be a better method when the issue is urgent.
- Signed form letters may not reach your representatives or their staffers; the letters may be thrown away or caught by a spam filter, if emailing.
- Be careful of how often you write your legislator. Sending letters too often is not regarded well.
- Send a thank-you note to your legislator when she or he does what was requested: “This is a powerful incentive for the member to pay attention to future communication” (AAAS, 2011, p. 63).
- Many examples of letters can be found online and in some of the additional resources linked below.
If you find yourself writing letters to your representatives or if you desire to be more involved with them, consider other means of communicating with them. Introduce yourself, develop a relationship with your legislator, and serve as a resource for him or her. The resources provided here also include multiple communication methods and tips. I encourage you to (re)read Tips for Working With Legislators (Crosswhite, 2015b) and Policy Advocacy or Policy Education: How to Impact Family Policy (Crosswhite, 2015a) to determine your preferred approach for working with legislators and how to build a relationship with her or him.
A final word of encouragement—when I taught family policy as a professor prior to working with NCFR, I taught my students how to write letters to their legislators. Students could choose to whom they would write the letter, including to local-level officials. I remember one student was very upset about a school policy and decided to write the local school district. Through effective communication, research, following the recommendations presented here, and being polite, the student was able to change the school policy.
American Association for the Advancement of Science. (2011). Working with Congress: A scientist’s guide to policy. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from https://www.aaas.org/report/working-congress-scientist%E2%80%99s-guide-policy
Consortium of Social Science Association (COSSA). (2017). COSSA handbook for social & behavioral science research advocacy. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from http://www.cossa.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/COSSA-Advocacy-Handbook.pdf
Crosswhite, J. (2015a). Policy advocacy or policy education: How to impact family policy. NCFR Report, 60(1), 9–11.Retrieved from www.ncfr.org/ncfr-report/past-issues/spring-2015/family-science-report-policy-advocacy-or-policy-education-how-impact-famil
Crosswhite, J. (2015b). Tips for working with legislators. NCFR Report, 60(4), 8–9. Retrieved from www.ncfr.org/ncfr-report/past-issues/winter-2015/family-science-report-tips-working-legislators
NCFR Board of Directors. (2017). Findings of NCFR member public policy survey 2: Moving forward. NCFR Report, 62(3), 1, 18–19. Retrieved from www.ncfr.org/ncfr-report/fall-2017/policy-survey-2.
American Psychological Association. (2014). A psychologist’s guide to federal advocacy. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, Education Government Relations Office & Public Interest Government Relations Office. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/advocacy/guide/federal-guide.pdf
Lobberecht, M. (2011). Tips for public policy involvement. Retrieved from https://www.ncfr.org/sites/default/files/tips_for_public_policy_involvement_book.pdf