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Phone calls, email, and meetings are all effective means of contacting Congress depending on the urgency of the topic and how much time you have to commit. To get contact information for your Senators and Representative, visit their websites, which you can find by going to www.senate.gov or www.house.gov. Each website will have addresses and telephone contact information for the local and Washington, DC offices. Most congressional websites also have information about district events such as town hall meetings where there are opportunities to meet the Member and share your concerns. In addition, when you visit the website, you will most likely be asked to subscribe to an electronic newsletter with information about future events.
Before meeting with Members of Congress or their staff, read their website and their biography to learn some basic facts about the legislator and the district. This will help you approach your conversation. Of particular interest are the Member’s background, party, ideology, voting record, tenure in Congress, and the Member’s Committee assignments.
Personal meetings in either Washington, DC or home district offices are a very effective way to communicate your views and establish relationships with your elected representatives and the staff members who work on your issues. To set up a meeting, call the lawmaker’s office, tell them who you are, and that you’d like to set up a meeting with your representative or the staff member who handles the issue you’d like to address. Office personnel are used to taking such calls, and will do their best to accommodate your request. Busy schedules often keep lawmakers from being able to meet with their constituents personally, but members of their staff handle policy issues and will communicate your views to their boss.
To prepare for your meeting, make sure you know what message you want to communicate. Is there a specific bill that you want them to vote for or against? Do they hold a view that you disagree with, and you’d like a chance to explain your perspective as a scientist? Make sure you are prepared to explain the issue in terms that a non-scientist can understand, and tell them clearly and concisely why you are there.
Remember that Capitol Hill is a busy place and appointments are subject to change. Be punctual, but be flexible too because you might have to wait, and you might end up meeting with a different person than you expected.
Keep your meeting short and to the point. Begin by thanking the Member or staffer for his/her time and for their support of biomedical research. Be prepared to explain your concerns in brief, and then ask the Member or staffer whether he/she has any questions. If they are supporting legislation that you oppose, ask them to explain how they see the issue and then do your best to respond to their concerns.
After a meeting, be sure to follow-up by sending a quick email thanking the person for their time, reiterating your main points, and offering to continue the discussion if they have further questions.
If you can’t set up a meeting, try calling the legislator’s office. When you call, ask to speak to the staff member who handles the issue you’d like to discuss. Prepare just as you would for a face to face visit, making sure you know what points you want to communicate. Phone calls are a good choice when a piece of legislation needs to be dealt with urgently. Simply registering your opinion on the issue can influence how your legislator votes.
A third option is to send an email message. Most congressional websites have a link for sending electronic messages using a web form. Make sure to fully explain your concern in non-technical terms, and include a way that they can contact you for more information. Mail from constituents is almost always answered, even if they disagree with you or cannot do what you are asking. However, sometimes the staff who read the email send the wrong response, i.e., the message thanks you for supporting legislation that in fact you oppose. If that happens, reply to the message or send a new message letting them know that they misunderstood your position. You certainly don’t want your opposition to be recorded as support!
Expressing views on a piece of legislation is lobbying, but that does not make you a lobbyist! As a citizen, you have the right to make your views known to your elected representatives. However, you should not communicate with Congress using computers or telephones supplied by your institution if it is supported by state or federal funds because that is against the law. If you need further guidance, contact your university’s government relations office.