How to Do Advocacy on the Hill
Why Bother with Capitol Hill Politicians?
While there are many factors that influence our social fabric, the U.S. is, at its core, a social contract built upon laws. Those who make our laws—federal legislators and local officials—have tremendous influence over the way our society is shaped and structured. If citizens (voters) are unhappy with legislative policies, they can influence the process by voting their representatives out of office.
A democracy is only as strong as the participation of citizens like you. If you are concerned about legislation that seems to discriminate against any group within our social fabric, Senators, Representatives and local officials must be challenged to right the perceived wrong or our democracy fails to serve all the people. The challenge must come from YOU.
As you move from dialogue to action in changing the story about Muslims in the U.S., contacting your elected representatives is an essential. If you are able to mobilize others to your cause, you bring added weight to your perspective. If you are in partnership with existing organizations, you carry even more weight and you can build a solid and ongoing personal connection between your organization and your congressional offices in ways that can significantly advance your cause. Do my visits and letters make a difference? The key to working with members of Congress is to remember that they owe their position to voters from their district and state. Congressional offices count the letters and e-mails they receive and meetings they have in favor and against various issues. Your actions can have a direct effect on the outcome of legislation and public policy pronouncements.
Frequently, the amount of communication received by an official's office on a given issue can be relatively small, so the few letters or e-mails that an elected official does receive can make a BIG difference in how they vote. Because legislators may not hear from many people on certain issues, the voices they do hear carry more weight.
Even more impressive to members of Congress than letters and e-mails are visits from their constituents. Financial and geographical limitations sometimes make it impossible to visit the Capitol Hill office of your representative or Senator. However, such a visit is often worth the investment because of the impact it makes. Be sure you make an appointment in advance. While it is always most effective to meet with the representative herself, do not dismiss the importance of meeting with key staff members. Such persons are often trusted aides and carry great weight with their boss.
Some basic ground rules for these visits:
- While it is often helpful to come to be joined by other colleagues, a cast of thousands is not helpful. If possible, bring three or four colleagues with you, but no more.
- Honor the time commitment of the representative and/or staff members. Be on time; do not overstay your welcome.
- Prepare in advance and be ready to make a clear and cogent case for how a particular piece of legislation or policy either helps or hinders the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims in the U.S. and around the world.
- If more than one in your delegation will be speaking, prepare in advance who will make which points so as not to be redundant.
- Dress well. Appearance counts in Washington.
- Be firm, but polite—listening as well as presenting your case. Often, active listening can reveal an openness to cooperation or compromise that you did not anticipate coming into the meeting.
- Express your gratitude for the time you’ve been given. Legislators and their staffs have incredibly busy schedules. Do not be surprised (in fact, be grateful) if you receive a 15 minute window to make your case. If visiting Washington, DC is not an option, remember that all representatives have offices in their home districts. Visits there can be as important as visits to the nation’s capital. The highest impact will be if you can schedule a visit with your representative when he is scheduled to be in his home district; but again, meeting with key staff is also an option.
- Better yet, consider ways in which you can have ongoing involvement with staff in order to build a lasting relationship. Such relationships are often the real key behind what agenda items get attention on the legislative docket and which do not.
Who Are My Elected Officials?
There are a number of ways to learn who your elected officials are. The simplest way to find them is through our Find Elected Officials tool below, where you can look up your elected representatives by zip code. Once you know who your officials are, visit their websites and learn more about them, their interests, their committee assignments, their voting records, what they feel are their most prized accomplishments. The more informed your communication is with them, the better.
Where to send your letter: If you know the name of your Representative, you can get addresses and phone numbers from the U.S. Capitol switchboard by calling 1.800.839.5276. To get a fax number, you will need to call the member's office directly. You can also check out congressional web pages for contact information, including email addresses. For members of the House of Representatives, go to www.house.gov. For senators, go to www.senate.gov.
Some Tips on Writing to your Representatives
If a visit is not possible, writing letters—and organizing a letter writing campaign—is also an effective strategy. Individualized letters are best and there are tools available that can help you customize a letter. We have a sample letter you can send here. This customization process helps a legislator know that their constituent has taken the time to become informed about the issue and offer their own thoughts, not just signed onto someone else’s agenda.
- Old-fashioned is Best: When possible, you should always communicate with your members of Congress through old-fashioned mail - this shows them the greatest degree of effort. It is however, important to note that, since the post-9/11 anthrax scare, snail mail delivery to Congress is sometimes intermittent. Several advocates recommend faxing traditional letters, especially when deadlines are pressing. Faxes also have the benefit of ringing like the phone. When a fax machine is constantly ringing and printing out letters, the whole office takes notice. But because a fax is less personal than a letter, they do not get quite as much attention.
- The Low-Down on Email Advocacy: Every office in Congress responds differently to emails. Because many emails are mass produced and easy to send with the click of a button, some staffers pay little attention to email. It is also less common for a congressional office to send a response with their policy position to emails. Increasingly, though, offices are catching on to new technologies, and keep active track of how many e-mails come through on each issue. As time passes, Congress will become more responsive to email - but it's not fully there yet. Customizing e-mails are better than sending form letters, but anything is better than nothing.
- Say It Like You Mean It: Because congressional offices receive hundreds of letters a week, always try to personalize your letter. The rule still holds that the more your communication stands out, the more attention it will receive. Tailor your letter with your own language and any special concerns that you might have. Because congressional offices receive so many letters, they also have standard responses that they return to you. If your letter is personalized, you increase the chances that you'll receive a more personal response. And if your letter raises the issue in a way that can't be responded to by a form letter, then staff have to take the time to craft an individual response - that's ideally what you want. Because every individual response has to be approved by the member of Congress or their senior staff, an individual response forces your issue to the desks of decision makers. So personalize those letters!
- Identify Yourself: Always begin each letter by stating that you are a constituent. This will let the staffer know right away that they need to pay attention to your letter.
- Get to the Point: To make sure that your letter gets the most attention from the staffer reading it, make sure that you put your request at the very beginning of your letter. By the second sentence, you should identify the issue that you are writing about, and how you want your representative to act on that issue. Because staffers read so many letters from constituents, it's important to grab their attention right away. Don't be afraid to state your positions strongly. Use bold text to highlight your opinions!
- Clear as a Bell: You should always be exactly clear on what piece of legislation you want them to co-sponsor, how you want them to vote on a particular bill, what letter you want them to sign, or what issue you want them to become active on. The more specific your “ask,” the more you force them to take a specific stand on your issue.
- Short and Sweet: One of the reasons constituents write letters to their members of Congress is to inform them of their opinions. Another reason is to educate them on an issue important to you. Always include the relevant facts and arguments to your issue when you write - but remember that you probably won't keep their attention for more than 1-2 pages.
- Getting a Response: Although it is standard practice for congressional offices to respond to all constituent mail, always be sure to clearly state that you would like to hear back on how you are going to be represented on your issue. This lets the office know that their response matters to you. What is the timing for Advocacy on the Federal level?
- As you seek legislation that lifts up cultural diversity or safeguards the constitutional rights of all our citizens, timing your advocacy to influence legislation is one of the most important skills you will need. Once an issue is decided by vote, it is very difficult, often practically impossible, to reverse the action until the next year or the next session of Congress. For more coordinated and strategic advocacy, which differs from rapid-response advocacy, it is important to plan ahead. Even when there is floor action in the House or Senate, it may be the case that the important action is happening in committees, caucuses, and negotiations.
The key working days for the House and Senate are Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. This allows members of Congress to travel to their home districts and provides time for committee work and various kinds of caucusing and negotiations, so if you hope to meet with your representative, shoot for Tuesday—Thursday.
It is not easy to predict when members will be in home districts, but it is important to contact the home offices of members to pursue appointments, since it is just as effective to meet with a staff member there. Why is it important to advocate on the state and local levels?
Nowhere is the concept “think globally, act locally” more important than in the relationship between the US and the Muslim community in the US and around the world. A basic premise underlying ChangeTheStory.net is that what happens on Main Street and what happens on Capitol Hill are intricately bound together. So, advocacy on the state and local level is as important as your work on the federal level.
Today, the relationship between the states and the federal government in shaping and implementing public policy is being redefined on a broad range of issues. In this new environment, public policy advocacy is critical at both the state and federal level. Every state and local legislative calendar is different, so check on your state and local webpages to find out when legislation is on the move.
As we seek a cultural “tipping point” that will fundamentally shift the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims in the U.S., the connection between federal, state and local public policy is becoming ever more evident.
Adapted from the website of the Latin America Working Group and the United Church of Christ’s Justice and Witness' website