Writing to Members of Congress is one of the easiest and most effective ways for people to communicate with policymakers on issues of interest and priority. Written communication can be done by e-mail or by sending a letter to the congressional office by fax. You can usually find preferred contact information on an elected official’s website. These notes, if done correctly, can result in support for your policy priorities.

When writing to policymakers, be sure to use your personal e-mail account, as your employer might not share your views on the topic. More importantly, it may be illegal for you to represent them based on their lobbying status. It is usually best to submit comments as a constituent of the elected official, as opposed to an organizational representative. Be sure to include your full name, return mailing address, e-mail address, and phone number. If you are a federal or state employee, you must use personal e-mail and your personal computer, fax, etc.

Keep a hard copy of what you send, as sometimes notes are lost and you may need to send a second copy to ensure a response. Here are some additional tips:

  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; don’t be threatening, confrontational, or rude. The most effective way to communicate with your elected officials is the way you communicate with your colleagues, neighbors, patients, family, and friends – clearly, concisely, and with respect and honesty.
  2. Identify yourself and why you are writing. Make your request up front, and identify yourself as a registered voter, constituent, and someone who has a connection to pain. For example: “As a person with pain who lives, votes, and works in your district, I am writing to request your support for increased funding for pain research.” 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. If you are in a leadership position and have clearance to write in that capacity (e.g., professional organization chapter president or state volunteer advocacy leader) be sure to use your title and indicate how many people you are representing for your organization.
  3. Be concise and informed. Try to keep your letter to a single page. 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). If you are requesting that the policymaker co-sponsor a particular measure or are writing to express disappointment about a particular vote the policymaker cast, check the list of co-sponsors and the vote record first to ensure that you have the most up-to-date information, and that all of your facts are correct.
  4. Personalize your message. You are an expert in your personal pain story – and as such, you have many experiences to share. Tell your own story or one of a patient’s (being mindful not to use anyone’s real name because of privacy concerns) and explain its relevance to the issue at hand. Although form letters and postcards are “counted,” they often do not get a response from a congressional office. Personal and local stories 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, please take a few moments to personalize it with your own experience. Also, if you can, include relevant state or local information to explain how the issue affects your community.
  5. Be honest and accurate. If you are including statistics or other scientific information, be sure to verify your sources and have them handy if the congressional office wants additional information. Also, be sure not to exaggerate the situation or issue you are discussing; do not oversell the policy solution you are advocating or exaggerate the consequences if the policymaker does not do what you request.
  6. Be modest in your request. Be sure not to “kitchen-sink” your communication. Focus on only one or two issues of top priority. Your communication will be clearer and policymakers or staffers will be more receptive because you have not overwhelmed them with too many requests.
  7. Offer assistance and serve as a resource. Policymakers and their staffers are overworked and overwhelmed, so offer your assistance. They will appreciate your input and help. If you have an article of interest, be sure to include it with your letter, or refer to it and indicate that you would be happy to provide it should they be interested.
  8. Express appreciation. If you receive a letter informing you that the member shares your views or took the action you requested, write back expressing your thanks for the response and support. Or, if you learn that the policymaker recently co-sponsored a bill you support or voted the way you hoped, send a letter expressing your pleasure at their action. At the close of your correspondence, be sure to acknowledge and 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 (politely) ask for a response and hold them accountable if your communication goes unanswered. In fact, entire systems, processes, and staff exist in congressional offices to respond to constituent input. However, because of the volume of voter input, it could be weeks or months before you receive a response. Be clear in your correspondence that you are requesting a written response regarding the policymaker’s views on the issue or legislation you addressed.
  10. Make sure to follow up. If you do not receive a response in a timely fashion (a month for most offices, a bit longer for large states like California and Texas), be sure to follow up with the office by phone or with another letter with your original attached (make sure you keep or print a copy for your records before you send it off), and indicate you have not received a response and would like one. Follow up with a phone call to ensure that your letter or e-mail has been received. If you don’t receive the response you would like, write or call again to express appreciation for the response and be polite, yet firm, in communicating that it 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. Also, if a Member of Congress does not take an action on your request, it is your right to (politely) request the office to provide an explanation.

Other Tips for Reaching Out

Keep in touch with the offices of your state and federal legislators to establish a relationship and make yourself available as a local resource on pain management issues. There are times when you and an elected official will have to “agree to disagree,” but over time, you also may find that the policymaker may be supportive and helpful on other matters. Some of the best friends of the pain community were not always allies, but because of a combination of advocates’ tenacity, a history of being respectful, providing reliable information, and making a compelling case, they became one.

Specific Tips About “Snail Mail”

As a result of anthrax attacks in fall 2001, the U.S. Postal Service mail is handled differently by Congress. Most incoming mail is irradiated to ensure it is safe for handling. This process takes quite a while and often damages the contents. Therefore, for time-sensitive communication, sending written correspondence by e-mail or fax is advised – or make a quick phone call. Also, enclosing items such as photographs, originals of articles, or other documents is not recommended; save these items for hand delivery when you have a meeting in the office – either in the local office or in Washington, DC.

Specific Tips About E-mail

Most public officials have a public e-mail address that is available on their websites. Many legislators’ offices provide a generic, automatic acknowledgement that your e-mail has been received but then will follow up with either a specific e-mail response to your issue or a letter via the regular U.S. Postal Service. A handful of offices still do not respond individually to e-mail but count the input and inform the policymaker how many people have written about the particular topic and what position they are advocating.

Some offices have instituted computer-based “algorithms” to ensure that e-mail messages they receive are from legitimate constituents. Typically, all this entails is for the constituent to answer an easy math equation (e.g., what is two plus two?), or to copy a word or phrase from one place on the screen to another. This helps them weed out any computer-generated or “spam” messages and allows constituent communications to get through. It is best to contact your elected official’s office directly to learn about their individual policies about constituent correspondence, or check their website for guidance.

Specific Tips About Phone Contact
For Members of Congress, you can call the Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121 to be transferred to your Members’ offices, or look in the “blue pages” of your local phone book, and your Members of Congress should be listed under the Government section.

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