1. Always be polite. When addressing correspondence to any government official, be sure to use the proper forms of address. Even if you are angry, frustrated, or disappointed, be sure to use a polite tone and appropriate language. The most effective way to communicate with your Members of Congress is the way you communicate with your patients—clearly, concisely, and with respect and honesty.
2. Be clear as to who you are and why you are writing. In the opening sentence, identify yourself as a registered voter, constituent, and person with Spina Bifida, and make your request clear up front. For example: "As a person with Spina Bifida who lives, votes, and works in your district, I am writing to request your support for the “Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities Prevention Act S 286/HR 398." If you know the member or staff aide, say so at the beginning of your message. This may alert the aide reading your correspondence to give your message special attention.
3. Be concise and informed. You do not need to be an expert on the issue, but you should be familiar with the basic facts and points (e.g., name of the legislation and the associated bill number and why it should be supported or opposed). Do not include extraneous details or too much scientific information. To the degree possible, try to keep your letter to a single page. If you are requesting that the policymaker cosponsor a particular measure or are writing to express disappointment at a particular vote the policymaker cast, check the list of cosponsors and the vote record first at http://thomas.loc.gov/ to ensure that you have your facts straight. When writing to policymakers, be sure to use personal stationery or your personal email account, as your employer might not share your views on the topic. For all forms of communication, be sure to include your full name, any degrees, return mailing address, e-mail address, and phone number. Also, be sure to keep a hard copy of what you send, as sometimes faxes, e-mails, or letters are lost and you may need to send a second copy to ensure a response.
4. Personalize your message. Remember, you are an expert on Spina Bifida issues and have many experiences to share. Tell your own story—or that of a patient—and explain the relevance to the issue at hand. Although form letters and postcards are “counted,” they often do not elicit a response from a Congressional office. Personal stories and illustrations of local impact are more easily remembered by policymakers and their staff than statistics and generic examples. Moreover, personal stories often are what spur policymakers to action—not statistics. The reality is that our policymakers often legislate by anecdote. Your own words are best and can influence the legislator’s response or vote. If you are using a template letter, take a few moments to personalize it with your own experience and expertise. Also, if you can, include relevant information from your district or state and explain how the issue affects your community.
5. Be honest. If you are including a personal story about a patient, be sure to protect your patients’ privacy by not using full names. Be sure to get the facts straight in your personal story, as you never know when that story may be told again on the House or Senate floor by a Member who has been moved and touched by the personal account. If you are including statistics or other scientific information, be sure to verify your sources and have them handy should the Congressional office follow up and want additional information.
6. Be modest in your request. Although you may wish to address multiple issues, be sure not to “kitchen-sink” in your communication. Focusing on one or two issues that are of top priority to you is best. Also, by concentrating on only a few issues, policymakers or staffers will be more receptive because you have not overwhelmed them with too many requests.
7. Be of assistance and serve as a resource. Policymakers and their staffers are overworked and overwhelmed—offer your assistance and expertise to them. They will appreciate your input and help. If you have an article of interest or relevance, be sure to include it with your correspondence, or refer to it and indicate that you would be happy to provide it should they be interested.
8. Express appreciation. Too many times we just “spank” and forget to “thank.” Be sure to say thank you and acknowledge the policymakers’ or staffers’ attention to your concerns. If you receive a letter in response to an earlier correspondence informing you that the Member shares your views or took the action you requested, write back expressing thanks for the response and support. Or, if you learn through Insights into Spina Bifida, or other means that the policymaker recently cosponsored a bill you support or voted the way you hoped, send a letter expressing your pleasure at his or her action. At the close of your correspondence, be sure to thank the Member for his or her attention to your concerns.
9. Ask for a response. Because policymakers and their staffers work for you, you have every right to ask for a response and hold them accountable. In fact, entire systems, processes, and staff exist in Congressional offices to respond to constituent input. It is important to note, however, that because of the volume of constituent input, there often is a delay of a few weeks or a month before you may receive a response.
10. Be sure to follow up. If you do not receive a response in a timely fashion (in excess of a month for most offices, a little bit longer for Senators from large states like California and Texas), be sure to follow up with the office by phone or with another letter with your original attached. If you receive an unsatisfactory response, you should write or call again to express appreciation for the response and be polite, yet firm, in communicating that the response was not what you anticipated or requested. Reiterate your points and address any concerns or points the policymaker has made on the issue in the correspondence. Keep in touch with the office so as to establish a relationship and make yourself available as a local resource on cancer care concerns.
Specific Tips About “Snail Mail”
As a result of the anthrax attack in the fall of 2001, the way the U.S. Postal Service mail is handled by Congressional post offices has changed. Most of the incoming mail is irradiated to ensure that it is safe for handling by Congressional staff and Members of Congress. Therefore, the content of such mail is oftentimes damaged. Therefore, enclosing items such as photographs, originals of articles, or other enclosures is not recommended. It is best to save these items for hand delivery or drop-off when you have a meeting in the office.
Specific Tips About E-mail
Each Congressional office maintains a different policy about how e-mail from constituents is handled. Most Members of Congress have a public e-mail address to which email can be sent. To access the e-mail addresses, you either can visit the individual Member’s Web page (via either http://www.house.gov or http://www.senate.gov/) or locate them through SBA’s Advocacy Center at http://www.sbaa.org. Many Congressional offices provide a generic, automatic acknowledgement that your email has been received but then will follow up with either a specific email response to your issue or a letter via regular U.S. Postal Service. A handful of offices still do not respond individually to e-mail but count the input as mentioned above. It is best to contact your Members’ offices to learn about their individual policies about constituent correspondence.