How to Write a Better Letter to Congress | Commentary
Last year, I was giving a speech to an association about how Congress works and was asked, “What’s the biggest obstacle to improving the democratic dialog in America?” I replied, “Bad writing.”
The Congressional Management Foundation sees this far too often in congressional offices — too many lawyers and policy wonks seeking to expound on a policy in an eight-paragraph email (as if that’s what will win over the constituent to their viewpoint). Yet we often see weak messages from advocacy groups as well.
Most of the messages citizens send to Capitol Hill were drafted by somebody else. This doesn’t mean the constituent doesn’t agree with the position they’re espousing — they most definitely do. They’ve joined an association, company or nonprofit and asked to be alerted when a policy issue they care about emerges in Congress. Subsequently, they get their “Action Alert,” give it a quick once-over, and hit “send.”
This means our traditional view of the democratic dialog — comprised of millions of Americans independently writing to 535 members of Congress — is in reality driven mostly by a few thousand lobbyists writing to a few thousand legislative correspondents and mail managers on Capitol Hill.
Professional advocates think the object of the process is to persuade — it is not. Do you really think an LC is going to read a hundred of these missives and say, “Oh, NOW, I’m convinced,” then suddenly run in the member’s office like a converted zealot? When crafting a “mass communication” message to Congress, advocates should look at the process differently, and consider these five rules.
1. Be specific — the “ask” must be measurable. Prior to the hearings for Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr. in 2005, a national group sent a message to millions of its members asking them to email senators on the Judiciary Committee. Their request was this: “Ask tough questions of Judge Roberts.”
Seriously? What did they think the senators were going to ask? “Judge Roberts, what’s your favorite ice cream?” The mail room staffers who read these messages simply snickered as they moved them to the “easy-to-respond-to” pile. Good form messages have a simple request that holds the legislator accountable. “Vote for,” “co-sponsor,” “sign this letter” — something that makes the lawmaker say yes or no. Some staffers will grumble, “Darn — we didn’t want to take a position on this so soon.” Tough . . . that’s what they get paid for.
2. Keep it short — seven to 10 sentences. No congressional staffer is going to read a form campaign email for more than a few seconds. Their job is to size it up and move it to the right pile to respond as quickly as possible.
Writers should: refer to the issue or bill; make the specific ask, include some personalized comment to localize the issue to the legislator’s district or state and thank them. Save the long policy arguments for the briefing material sent to the legislative assistant.
3. Personalize and establish standing. In a CMF survey of congressional staff, 51 percent said that a “form email” would have “some” or “a lot” of influence, compared to 88 percent for an “individualized email.” Professional advocates who draft these messages should strongly urge citizen advocates to personalize the message.
“As a small business leader with 10 employees . . . ,” “This regulation affects two million Virginians . . . ,” “Like many Americans, my father has Alzheimer’s . . . .” Staff and members report that these kinds of messages, especially as part of broader campaigns, are much more helpful to their decision-making process.
4. Connect to the larger group. Messages should be transparent about the group who is coordinating the campaign. It not only helps add credibility, it adds heft to the individual sending the message. Suddenly the congressional office does the math and says, “Oh . . . they have 2,000 members in our district,” and ties that position to a large number of constituents.
5. Augment other advocacy efforts. Back in the 1990’s a well-coordinated and expensive postcard campaign might turn the head of a legislator on its own. But the Internet changed the economics of advocacy. Websites and social media make it much easier for groups to build campaigns. That means form email campaigns should be part of broader efforts to build relationships with the lawmaker.
Encourage supporters to participate in town hall meetings, engage in Twitter chats, or schedule in-state meetings during recess.
Email exchanges between members of Congress and constituents are still the most common form of interaction in our democracy. A little more thought into the content and crafting of those messages could greatly improve that dialog.
Bradford Fitch is the president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation, and a former staffer.