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Public Policy Advocacy: The Basics

Being an effective advocate on legislative issues means knowing where and when to exert your influence.  As a citizen, a constituent, or as a member of an organization, you have a right to communicate your thoughts and ideas to legislators, federal officials, and the White House.  To influence the legislative debate on issues of importance to you, familiarize yourself with the legislative process, personnel, and procedures.  Establish a relationship with your Members of Congress (your representative in the U.S. House of Representatives and both of your U.S. Senators) and their staffs by introducing yourself, your work, and your issues of interest and expertise. Through letters, e-mails, and meetings in the district, state, and Washington, D.C. offices, you can get to know your legislators.  Being a resource for information on health and aging issues will make you valuable to the legislator and her/his staff.  When you want to discuss a piece of legislation or current public issue that affects your area of research, you will already have a relationship established. The following information will assist you in accomplishing your advocacy goals.

The Letter

Legislators rely on letters to find out what constituents and advocacy organizations are thinking. Letters can play an important role in establishing a relationship with a legislator, explaining an organization’s policy position, and eliciting a response from the Member of Congress. The following are guidelines for effective letter writing:

  • If urgency is required, fax or email the letter rather than using the postal system; mail takes 3 to 4 weeks to arrive in Washington, D.C. due to testing for dangerous enclosures
  • If you know the legislator, use her/his first name; your letter will receive more attention; otherwise, use “Dear Representative (last name)” or “Dear Senator (last name).”
  • The address for senators and representatives are, respectively:

The Honorable (insert senator’s name)
U.S. Senate
Washington, D.C.  20510

The Honorable (insert representative’s name)
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, D.C.  20515

  • Use your own words. Personal letters (not postcards) are most effective.
  • State the topic you are writing about, and your position on it, in the opening sentences.
  • Use personal experience or concrete examples from the member’s state or district to make your case.
  • Refer to bills by name and number, e.g., H.R. 1783 or S. 1070, the Elder Justice Act.
  • Keep it short. Limit the number of topics you address in your letter.  You can always write another letter to discuss additional issues.
  • Raise questions.  A well-formulated question can get a personal response.
  • Be polite, positive, and constructive.  Don’t plead, and never threaten.
  • Be timely. Write before decisions are made and action is taken. But don’t write too long before – a letter received six months before a vote will probably be forgotten.
  • Write to thank your legislators when they take action you agree with. If a staff member is particularly helpful, thank her/him too—or mention your gratitude to your legislator.

E-Mail and the Internet

E-mail is used increasingly for communication between constituents and legislators. The same suggestions and caveats hold for electronic communication as written or verbal communications.  Legislative offices are inundated with e-mails at times, especially when controversial legislation is in the news. Sometimes an advocacy group will instruct its members to participate in an e-blast. Therefore, a phone call or fax may be the best way to reach your legislator. You can find the e-mail addresses for legislators in the congressional directories or from the Internet: www.senate.gov and www.house.gov.

The Fax and the Telegram

Faxes and telegrams can be useful when important votes are coming up and urgency is required. A fax, telegram, or even another phone call should be brief, stating your position on the upcoming bill, and should include the bill number. The fax number can be found in congressional directories, from the personal office, or from the Internet: www.senate.gov and www.house.gov.

The Telephone Call

Congressional offices pay close attention to issue-related phone calls as a measure of voters’ sentiment. An influx of calls can sometimes change a legislator’s vote, but even a few calls can make a difference by alerting the member to a concern. When you call, ask if your senator or representative could send you a written response. This will help ensure that your call gets counted.  You can also ask if the office has received other calls on the same issue and, if so, what position most of the callers are taking on the issue.

Where to call: most senators and representatives maintain one or more offices in the state or congressional district they represent. You can find the phone number in the U.S. government section of your telephone book or by calling Information. If you wish to contact your legislator in the Washington, DC, office (either the personal office or a committee office), use the Capitol switchboard to place the call or to obtain the phone number. Simply dial (202) 224-3121 and ask for your legislator’s office.

Meeting with Elected Officials

You can meet with your legislator at a state, district, or Washington, DC, office. Proper preparation is essential for ensuring a successful visit.

Scheduling an Appointment. To contact your legislator in Washington, DC, call the Capitol switchboard at (202) 224-3121 and ask for your legislator’s office. If you don’t already know a staff member, ask to speak with the scheduler or the staff person who handles the issue about which you are requesting a meeting. You are more likely to be granted a meeting with a member of Congress if you are a constituent or if your issue relates to the legislator’s personal or legislative interests.

Preparing for the Meeting

  • Be early. Factor in time to go through entrance security (bring a photo id) and to find the office in the hard-to-navigate congressional buildings.
  • Keep your group small (less than five people).  An unwieldy number of visitors can make everyone uncomfortable, distract from your message, and waste valuable time.  Time slots are usually no longer than fifteen minutes.
  • Familiarize yourself with current events in Congress.  Acknowledge that your issue of interest is one of many issues facing Congress.  Be aware of what the Member of Congress has done on your issue.
  • Plan your presentation.  Develop, rework, and refine your stance in advance.  Make certain that each group member knows her/his role and what s/he will say.  Designate one person as the “chairperson” to introduce the issue, refer to others for their brief presentations, and draw the meeting to a close.
  • Don’t assume the person with whom you are meeting knows anything about you or your issue; outline basic facts and data, but don’t talk down or be condescending.
  • Limit your visit to one or two topics.  Keep your message brief, to the point, and simple.
  • Share your personal story, and give concrete examples of how the issue affects constituents or the state or district. It is important to develop a relationship with the Member of Congress and humanize the issue.
  • Decide in advance what you hope to get out of the meeting: sponsorship of a bill, support in committee, a floor speech, a vote, or issue awareness. Don’t forget to clearly repeat this request at the end.
  • Offer to be a future resource for background or new information on the issues you discuss.
  • Be courteous and respectful to staff members as well as the legislator.
  • If you don’t know the answer to a question, don’t make it up.  Offer to find out and send information back to the office later.
  • Listen to your legislator’s responses.  Find out if s/he has heard opposing views.  If so, find out what the arguments are and what groups are involved.  It’s okay to refute the more obvious objections, but don’t get into an argument with the legislator or the staff person.
  • Leave a short position paper or fact sheet and a business card in the office with the legislator or staff member after the meeting.  Leave background information on your organization or institution (if appropriate) as well.
  • Follow up your visit with a thank you note.

The Role of Congressional Staff

Each Mmember of Congress has a professional staff in Washington, DC, and in the district office. Some of the Washington staff are assigned to the legislator’s personal office, and others to a committee or subcommittee.  Staff members schedule appointments, track legislation, and make recommendations concerning legislative issues.  
Because of the busy schedules legislators keep, it is important to develop and maintain a good working relationship with staff members responsible for your issues. When you call the Washington office, make sure that you speak with the staff person responsible for the legislation or the issue about which you are calling. Remember that 15 minutes with a staff member can often better serve you and your cause than a five minute visit with the Member of Congress.

Communicating with the White House

Sometimes you may want to call or write the White House to register your opinions. The administration uses calls and letters to the White House as a gauge of public opinion. Communicating with the Executive Office can be as important as calls and letters to Congress.

When writing to the White House, the proper salutation is “Dear Mr. President.”  The address is:
The President
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, D.C.  20500

  • If you would like to call the White House, you can use the White House comment line at (202) 456-1111 or leave a message with an operator.
  • You can also e-mail your message using the Internet address This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
  • The White House fax number is (202) 456-2461.
  • You may want to ask to speak to the specific staff member who covers the issues about which you are calling. They are often very difficult to reach.

How to Get Copies of Bills, Committee Reports, and Hearing Transcripts

Increasingly, government documents are accessible on the Internet. For information on pending legislation, copies of bills, committee reports, and congressional schedules, use the Library of Congress website known as “Thomas.” You may also use the Government Printing Office website, which provides access to the Congressional Record.

In the House of Representatives, bills are identified as H.R.____.  In the Senate, they are identified as S.____.

The Senate Document Room takes e-mail requests for copies of Senate bills, committee reports, etc. Use This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Include your name, address, and phone number. If you prefer to use the postal service to send your request, write to: Senate Document Room, B-04 Hart Building, Washington, D.C., 20510.  (Limit: 6 items per order, 1 copy of each).    

For House bills and reports, contact the Legislative Resource Center at (202) 226-5200 or write to: LRC, Office of the Clerk, B-106 Cannon House Office Building, Washington, D.C.  20515-6612. The website for information on House documents is www.clerk.house.gov.

You can also ask your legislator’s office to get the information you need.  Identify the bill or committee report by name and number.

The Key Committees

Find out which committees play a central role in developing legislation and shaping policy in your issue area. In most cases, the Chair and the Ranking Minority Member are also ex officio members of the committee’s subcommittees; they can participate in subcommittee deliberations but generally do not have a vote.

Be an effective advocate from home.  There are many ways you can influence your members of Congress from outside Washington, DC:

  • Write letters to the editors of local newspapers. Members of Congress always read letters in their hometown newspapers. Write a clear and concise message (less than 200 words).
  • Attend and participate in town/city hall meetings held by your members of Congress.
  • Invite your members of Congress to visit your program/organization to highlight how legislation affects their constituents and to further humanize the issue.

Be Proactive

Develop lasting relationships with your members of Congress by contacting them every month or two; this will ensure that they recognize your name and trust the information you provide.  Your messages can range from specific requests for votes or cosponsorship to bits of information, ideas, and stories you think would be useful.  Your Members of Congress expect to hear from you, and, as an expert and viable source of information and advice, your members of Congress should hear from you.

This document was written in part from Alzheimer’s Association and Families USA materials.

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