How much difference does a letter or phone call make?
by Merrik Bush
Will Rogers once said that "Congress is the best that money can buy."
Does this mean that a $10,000 gift from a polluter will always wield more
influence with legislators than the will of their constituents?
Not according to the legislators who say that come election time, what
ultimately counts are citizens' votes. And many members of Congress agree
that every letter, phone call, fax e-mail message and personal visit from
voters has some measure of influence.
But how much impact your message will have depends on the issue, the
timing, the legislator and how it is crafted and conveyed. Not least of
all, "the effectiveness of your lobbying activity depends on the degree
of opposition and controversy surrounding an issue," said Chris Arthur,
legislative director to Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y).
Lawmakers and lobbyists agree that it is much easier to influence legislators
on local issues that directly affect their states. Siding with constituents
on these "bread and butter" issues garners Publicity and support in home
districts. But it's often more difficult to influence legislators on national
issues because they may not feel as inclined to change a national vote
simply to please a handful of Constituents, especially if that vote engenders
popularity with congressional peers.
Democratic Sen. John Kerry, in a July 5 meeting with environmentalists,
remarked that most of his colleagues "didn't dig deep" into the implications
of legislation they voted on. The Massachusetts senator said that often
decisions are based strictly on "cover-your-ass" instincts or the "short
politics" of how much money or how many votes a decision will produce in
the next election. 'They'll begin listening only if they sense that there
are votes at stake," he said.
Additionally, if legislators' positions are undecided and they don't
hear from constituents, they may cave in to pressure from other members
of Congress and align their vote accordingly. Constituents who speak up
at these critical junctures cam be particularly effective. In fact, for
some legislators, it takes just a few letters and phone calls from their
district to make the difference. "If legislators are on the fence, they're
more likely to be influenced by a strong show of' interest from back home,"
said Arthur "Sometimes they'll even vote your way just to get you off their
"Every type of correspondence that states a position is at least tallied
and passed on. In our of fine, every letter and phone call counts, especially
if the issue is current." --Val Dolcini, legislative assistant to Rep.
Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
"Perhaps 90 percent of our citizens live and die without ever taking
pen in hand and expressing a single opinion to the person who represents
them in Congress--a person whose vote may decide what price they will pay
for the acts of government, either in dollars or in human lives," wrote
the late Rep. Morns Udall (D-Ariz.)in a letter to constituents.
Many grassroots lobbyists and legislators believe the personal letter
is the most powerful tool a constituent has next to a private meeting.
Legislators receive between 200 and 5,000 letters weekly, depending on
the size of their districts and how much noise the issue has generated.
This makes it impossible for them to read and respond to every letter.
Staff members in each of fine count the letters, tally the number of pros
and cons for each issue, draft responses and report back at day's end.
"Even on the biggest issues, a single letter can stand out when it shows
thoughtful consideration of the subject," said one Capitol Hill staffer
"I would pull that letter out of the pile and give it right to the senator."
Most legislator s agree that personalized letters carry much more weight
than form letters--whether typed or handwritten. "An individual letter,
written by a constituent in his or her own words, is more impressive than
the thousands of computer-generated postcards that Senate offices receive
every week," said David Carle, a member of Sen. Paul Simon's (D-Ill.) staff.
Although no barometer exists to measure the political pressure each
letter exerts, politicians say that each person who rakes the one and effort
to write a thoughtful, coherent letter represents from three to eight additional
constituents. Liz Frenkel, Sierra Club legislative coordinator in Oregon,
goes further in her estimate, saying that every letter or phone call equals
eight to 10 more members in the community Paula Carrell, the Sierra Club's
state program director, has had plenty of opportunities to gauge legislators
reactions to pressure from constituents. In a classic example of how
powerful letter-writing can be, Carrell tells of a California legislator
who sponsored a damaging river bill.
"After he received 20 or so letters from constituents about the bill,
he told me he was surprised to find 'any of you people in my district,'"
Carrell said. He seemed particularly unnerved when he realized that many
of these 'environmentalist' constituents were people of some note in his
district, such as PTA members and a well-known physician. He changed his
vote on the bill, at some cost to his relationship with its author."
The key to successful letter-writing is that letters be personal, inoffensive
and come from many "new" voices in the district. legislators won't pay
as much attention to familiar letter writers who write a letter on the
same issue every week. A continual stream of new names is important," said
one congressional aide.
For activists, this means rallying friends and neighbors to put their
pens to paper. Lobbyists also suggest listing associations and memberships
in addition to the Sierra Club to discourage "unfriendly" legislators from
pigeon-holing environmentalists as "tree-huggers" or members of "the backpack
To reinforce your message, broadcast it to your community in a letter
to the editor of your local paper. Members do read their local papers,
especially the op-ed page--it's a standard practice around the hill," said
Sherry Ettleson, Sen. Paul Wellstone's (D-Minn.) legislative assistant.
Elden Hughes: "Recognize the power of your voice."
It's difficult to turn down someone who asks directly for a favor, especially
when it is framed in a non-combative, persuasive manlier. This is why lobbyists--and
legislators--agree that a personal meeting is highly effective.
"Face-to-face is always the best," said Arthur. "If you can get an appointment
with the congressperson, it's harder for hull or her to say 'no' to your
Legislators suggest that the likelihood of securing a meeting often
depends on the number of constituents represented in that meeting, and
how great the opposition is to your position. "The key is to have a small
group representing many people or groups," said Ettleson. "The more groups
behind you, the more likely you are to get to see him or her."
More often than not, you'll end up meeting with a staff member, which
has almost as much impact as meeting directly with your representative
because legislators generally consult with their staff before making a
As in all efforts intended to garner attention, a bit of creativity
and spirit goes a long way. Elden Hughes, tireless environmental lobbyist
and a hero of the California Desert Protection Act campaign, tells of his
"tortoise visits" to Capitol Hill with wife Patty: "When we were in Washington,
Patty stopped by Sen. Barbara Mikulski's (D-Md.) of fine with a box of
baby tortoises and met with her chief of staff. Later that day, Sen. Mikulski
called then-Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) and told him she had just been
called on by five tortoises from California and she wanted to co-sponsor
his desert bill."
They also visited Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) who was, according to Hughes,
left speechless: "He walked out to the reception office and there were
14 at his staff on the floor playing with five tortoises. I lie looked,
said nothing, shook his head and returned to his office. One week later
he became a co-sponsor "
Effective, yes. Easy, no. Often a constituent has neither the time,
resources nor inclination to cultivate a personal relationship And time-pressed
citizens may not have the chance to craft and send letters within the small
window of opportunity that is open when an issue is nearing a vote. Alternative
methods such as phone calls, e-mail messages and faxes cam convey your
message quickly, but are they effective?
Of all the methods, the phone call is the quickest and easiest, and politician.
count it as a close second to the letter. Sen. Nancy Kassenbaum's (R-Kan.)
of fire reports that they receive anywhere from 10 calls a minute on days
when there is a vote, to two or three calls per day when there is no legislative
To ensure that your call is being registered, ask for a reply. "Always
keep them accountable," said Ettleson. "If you write or call, ask for a
Calls are tallied and reported to legislators just like letters. The
White House, which receives between 2,000 and 2,500 calls a day, routes
these numbers to the president daily. Often, if a comment is particularly
striking, it's written down and passed on to the president," said the White
House comments line director.
Gauging the overall effectiveness of calls is difficult. But the more
calls on an issue, the greater the impact. "If' 20 calls come into the
district of fire in a day on the same issue, this information is quickly
relayed to the legislator," said Ettleson.
The newest lobbying method to hit Congress, e-mail is still in its early
stages and not all congressional members can receive it. Those who can
say its use is growing. "Once e-mail becomes more widely accepted and available,
then its popularity will increase," said Doug Booth, press secretary for
Rep. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).
The White House, which is set up to receive e-mail encourages voters
to use it. Currently, for every e-mail sent, a standard form message is
sent back by an "autoresponder" set up in the system. Stephen Horn, presidential
e-mail director, said that to date, the president has received over 600,000
pieces of e-mail, which are read and tallied by correspondence staff and
sent to the president weekly with a few samples pulled out.
Many lobbyists remain ambivalent, however. I'd rate e-mail at the bottom
of the list of the best ways to lobby," said Frenkel. "Not everyone has
it and your message doesn't always have impact since the system doesn't
list your address. Legislators don't know if you're a constituent or not,
unless you make a point of including your address." Frenkel believes that
within the next couple of years cyberspace communication will play a greater
The fax, like the phone call, is a quick way to convey messages," said
Booth, "particularly if an issue is being debated on the floor that day
and you want to get your opinion noted before a vote is cast."
However, most legislators agree that the fax shouldn't be used in place
of more traditional methods, such as a letter, because fax machines are
used mostly for inter-office correspondence and tend to become overloaded.
One Capitol Hill staffer said that, overall, faxes aren't given much credence
and are usually thrown away because their volume makes them difficult to
deal with. The increase in technological communication wears out the staff,"
said Mike Horak, press secretary to Sen. Kassenbaum.
But both Horak and Booth agreed that depending on the staff member,
some faxes may be added to the letter pile.
Overwhelmingly, legislative staff and volunteer lobbyists say no matter
what methods are used, the efforts of one person can make a difference.
Whether it's at a town meeting, or through letters and phone calls," said
Horak, "the best approach is to become educated on an issue and frame it
in a personal context." Elden Hughes, volunteer lobbyist and desert tortoise
champion, agrees. But, he Says, it all starts with the individual. Recognize
the power of your voice. Be persistent, keep your messages consistent and
don't be afraid to ask for help. You will be heard."
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