|FAS Public Interest Report
The Journal of the Federation of American Scientists
Volume 54, Number 2
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Making your views heard to CongressBy Robert Sherman
Knowing that I spent 25 years on Congressional staff, people sometimes ask me if the best way to communicate with a senator or representative is by letter or telephone. The answer, I can say with 100% confidence, is neither.
Mail is answered by legislative correspondents, who are entry-level people at the bottom of the legislative ladder. Their primary responsibility is to crank out responses to the ever-increasing flood of mail as quickly as possible. It is not to carefully analyze the letter, nor to seek new thoughts to be brought to the attention of the principal, nor to analyze political trends. Form letters and form paragraphs are used at every opportunity, so that a letter can be answered after the briefest skim-read. Only a small proportion of legislative mail is seen by the specialist legislative assistant; hardly any is seen by the principal. In some offices the mail flow is tabulated by subject and position, but the tabulation is given little weight in determining the legislator's position. In other offices, mail is not tabulated.
Telephone calls have even less impact. They are answered by the receptionist, who is at most a professional chosen for efficiency and pleasantness, or at least an intern. The receptionist's job is to politely accept the call and move on. Telephone calls are rarely tabulated.
Petitions or form cards are even less effective unless they come in extremely large numbers. In all cases, the office objective is to give the constituent satisfaction for having communicated and for receiving a prompt and efficient response. That is all.
In no sense does this superficial treatment of constituent mail and telephone calls mean that legislators don't care about constituent opinion. On the contrary, they well understand that constituent opinion will determine their political life or death. But they also understand that mail and telephone calls are not accurate measures of public opinion. For that, they rely on expensive professional polls and focus groups paid for by campaign funds. How, then, can a citizen who can't make large campaign contributions get his/her views to the attention of a senator or representative? Here are two ways.
Bottom line: One letter to the editor, or one moment with the principal or legislative specialist, is worth more than a thousand letters or phone calls to the front desk.