Advocacy Guide

Legislative Advocacy

As constituents of a Member of Congress, each of you has the power to have your voice heard by an individual directly involved in national policy-making. The great thing about American politics is that you don't need to make a trip to Washington, D.C., in order to be heard. In fact, you can often be more effective by staying right in your Congressional district. However, since you are only one of many constituents to whom your Member is accountable, how you choose to frame and articulate your message is very important to the overall effectiveness of your efforts.

Setting up Meetings with your Member of Congress

You should always be able to set up a meeting with a staff member of your Congressional office, whether it is in a district office or the Member's Washington office. However, by working together with members of your coalition that represent a diverse range of interests within your district, you may be able to obtain a meeting with the Member. Here are some general tips for setting up and conducting a Congressional appointment.

District Office

Depending on the size of your district, there are anywhere from one to three district offices of your Member of Congress. Most Senators have district offices in major cities in the state. Keep in mind the Member will most likely only be available in the district on weekends or during Congressional recesses, so if you want to meet with the Member it will have to be during those times. Congress goes on recess around most major national holidays - for a schedule of when Congress is in session in Washington, see the following websites: www.senate.gov and www.house.gov.

  1. Call the office and ask to speak with the Member's scheduler. If the receptionist asks you to identify yourself, make sure to say you are a constituent.
  2. Tell the scheduler why you are calling and what you (or your group) would like to discuss with your Member. Some schedulers may request that you fax a formal request for a meeting to the office. Make sure to communicate the names and organizations of all members of your group, and specify those who are constituents.
  3. If the scheduler wants to get back to you, make sure you follow up with them if you don't hear anything within a few days.
  4. Before the time of your appointment, make sure you do some research on your Member if you are not familiar with his/her positions, especially on your issue. If your meeting is with a staff member, try to find out what issues that person covers and how much experience he or she has in the office.
  5. When the time for the meeting comes, be prepared and concise. Assume that you may have to start with the basics of your issue, but attempt to assess right away how much the Member/staff knows, and if they are knowledgeable, jump right into the substance of the issue. However, keep in mind you may only have a few minutes, so know ahead of time what main points you want to make in your meeting. The following is a sample outline for your presentation:
    1. Introduce yourself and other group members. If you are part of a coalition, briefly describe what your coalition does.
    2. Give a quick background summary of your issue (this is the part to skip if the Member/staff seems knowledgeable of your issue.)
    3. Explain what your position on the issue is, and why. It is helpful to make links with your district, e.g. "I support the Organization X because I know it does XXX for my business in your district, which employs 30 of your constituents." If you are part of a group, and especially if your group represents a wide range of interests, make sure each person has a chance to contribute to this part of the discussion. 
    4. Explain what you are asking of the Member of Congress and why. Try to be as specific as possible, e.g. "I'm asking you to vote for H.R. XXXX, which is scheduled for a vote in the next few weeks, because it will allow my business to continue to share the benefits I just mentioned." Don't assume your issue is on the Member's radar screen or that the Member/staff knows when relevant votes or action will take place. 
    5. Finally, try to gather any information the Member/staff may have on your issue. For example, try to find out when unknown events might be taking place, or if the Member seems supportive of your issue, who he or she may think could be other possible allies of your cause.
  6. Have a "leave behind" ready to hand to the Member/staff at the beginning of the meeting. Your packet of information should include a one-pager on your organization, and a separate page on why the Member should support your particular issue. Any necessary background information should also be included, but try to keep everything as brief, clear, and concise as possible.
  7. Follow-up. Send a short thank you note and any information that you promised in the meeting or that might be helpful for the Member to carry out any promises he or she made during the meeting. Keep the Member in the loop in the future by sending him or her your newsletters, e-mail alerts, etc.

Washington Office

If you do happen to be making a trip to Washington and have time to set up a meeting, follow the same procedures. If you do not know your Member's Washington phone number, call the Capitol switchboard at (202) 224-3121.

Writing Your Members of Congress

Members of Congress want to hear from you. They know and realize their response to your inquiry/comments may translate into votes in the next election. That is why grassroots communications are so effective. You have the unique opportunity to have your message heard and, for better or worse, will most likely receive a personal response from your Member.

Congressional offices are busy places. They receive hundreds of calls, letters, emails and visits per day. How then, do you get your message heard?

Here are a few tips to keep in mind when writing to your elected officials:
  • Length. Letters should be concise and to-the-point. Try to keep your letter to one page (typed), and never exceed two pages.
  • State your purpose. In the first paragraph, let the Member know why you are writing. Use the second, third and fourth paragraphs to make your point.
  • Include specifics. If you are writing about specific legislation, try to include the bill number, the title or some reference to the bill. Bill numbers are written as follows: House Bills: "H.R. add bill number" and Senate Bills: "S. add bill number".
  • Just the facts. State your position using facts as the basis for your position. Include how the legislation will/might affect you and/or your business directly. Avoid emotional or philosophical arguments (remember, be concise).
  • Request a Response. Ask for your Member's views, but do not demand their support or opposition. Be polite. Kindness and respect will go a long way toward making your position heard. Rude, demeaning, and other inappropriate words and tone will only decrease the value of your message.
  • Be Friendly. Do not hesitate to include additional information to add a "friendly" tone to the letter. For example, if you are a supporter of the Member, feel free to say so.
  • Getting Credit. Make sure that your name, address and phone number are on the letter. Without this information, it is unlikely that your correspondence will be read.Use the following format when addressing your letter:
The Honorable ________________
United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510

Dear Senator_____________:

The Honorable__________________
United States House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20525

Dear Representative______________:

Phone Banks to a Member of Congress' Office

Setting up a phone bank for members of your organization to call their Members of Congress on a specific issue is a great way to mobilize your partners and get out your message. Good phone bank locations include union halls, law offices, or anywhere with easy access to a large number of phones. Hundreds of calls to the Member's district or Washington office can be more effective and easier to organize than a press conference. It is a good idea to provide callers with a short script to keep the message consistent. The script should include information about the issue and the Member's phone number. If you still want press coverage for your issue, call the press to show them all of the people who are working at your phone bank operation. An interview should cover the basics of which you are and what your message is.
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