You are distressed. You’ve been reading the news a lot lately because of the uproar over Donald Trump. You disagree with a lot of the things that he is doing. You feel that something should be done. But, you aren’t a marcher or a protester and you don’t know anyone who is. Still somebody needs to do something! You decide to write a letter to your Congressman. Since you graduated from high school twenty five years ago, you’ve often thought about writing. Now you will.

You do write the letter. Actually you write an email and send it off. And, after a few days, you get an email in reply. Your Republican Congressman appreciates the fact that as a citizen you cared enough to write him. Further more, he agrees with almost everything you said. He wishes you and your family well. And, he signs the letter! For a few brief shining moments you feel good. You have finally really let those people in Washington know that you are out here concerned. Something will happen! And nothing happens. Nothing will.

To understand what went wrong, it is helpful to envision the “geography” of Capitol Hill (The original District of Columbia was a swamp. In that vast swamp were several high spots and the highest was chosen for the Capitol building with other government buildings surrounding it.) Every one of the 435 people elected to the House of Representatives gets a suite of three large rooms in one of the huge House office buildings grouped around the south end of the Capitol building. The Congressman will keep the left or the right of the three for his own office. He will have his own shower and bathroom and a very large space for his desk. The other two rooms will be occupied by Legislative Aids (Often ambitious younger people hired from his own district.). Each will have his or her own space with a computer. Each will be assigned a “portfolio”. So, one “L.A.” may be assigned Agriculture, another Medical and Health, another Social Security and Retirement, one Military. There will probably be about nine of them and each will have a specialty. When you telephone, or you email, or you write a letter, that message will be assigned to the correct Aid and that person will handle it.

One thing that is true is that a Congressman will almost never take your phone call or read your email or your letter (Some Congressmen do have a few of the most interesting letters saved out to for themselves to read but that is fairly rare.). Answering all those letters is the job of the assigned Legislative Aid. And in well run offices those letters do get answered (For one thing, citizens who get answers are more apt to vote for the Congressman who “signed” those responses.). The trick is that each computer is programmed with a set of standard introductions (“I am always delighted to hear from one of my constituents . . . “), a whole series of prewritten paragraphs about almost any subject a constituent might be concerned about, and, a series of closures (“Once more let me say how delighted I am to hear . . . If you have any other concerns feel free to write or to call.”). As the letter is read, the Aid clicks on the best responses. And, back home, you get a warm personal answer signed by your Congressman! It is true that the Congressman never actually saw it but you did get an answer (And, in each office a few people will be assigned to sign the Congressman’s signature and/or the office may use a “signing machine”.).

A natural response to reading this will be to conclude that the system is dishonest and phony. And, in a way it is. But, the volume of emails and letters is so huge (often huge bags of mail three times a day), that there probably isn’t any other way to do it unless you want you elected Congressman, at $156,000 a year, to just sign letters. Still if you’ve sent your email and feel wronged, it doesn’t mean that that communicating with your Congressman can’t be useful. You do need to better understand how the how the system works.

To begin, probably calling or sending emails is not the way to be most effective. If you call, someone will answer the phone, and they will write something down and hopefully get it to the right Legislative Aid, but calls get lost. Particularly, they get lost in congressional offices in a time like this when so many people are using their Congressman to register their displeasure about Donald Trump. You may not be able to get through at all. Emails are more apt to “get lost” too. The overburdened Legislative Aid will, with a few clicks, produce a response and that will be it. You’ll be much more apt to have a real effect if you write a letter (It is better to actually hand write it. People in those offices like to believe that they are getting letters from “real people”. Handwritten will be taken more seriously.). If you have a request, state it clearly and ask for their help. If you are presenting an opinion or an idea make sure that the reader understands that this is a real concern for you and other people that you know (All the people in my church feel the same way!). If you’re angry, that’s all right, but, don’t be abusive, don’t swear and call the Congressman names!). Abusive letters disappear.

Too be effective, you have to reach the right person! Each Congressman will be assigned to several major permanent committees, usually two, and one minor one (It’s a little hard to be exact because the House sometimes breaks its own rules.). The big committees will have fifty or more members (Agriculture, Armed Services, Budget, Appropriations), but those committees are really “holding companies” for subcommittees of seven or nine or eleven members (the numbers are always odd to prevent ties), and it is in those subcommittees that the real work is done. They also will usually have the power to decide if the bill will proceed or will never be considered. To use a simple example: Let us say that you see a special on public television about coyotes in the West. Most of the West is still owned by the federal government and the land is administered by the Department of the Interior, overseen in the House by the Committee on Natural Resource’s Subcommittee on Public Lands. Ranchers in the West often don’t own their own land, they lease it from the Department of the Interior. The ranchers hate the very clever coyotes (The truth is that the least clever of the coyotes keep getting killed off so that now the average coyote I.Q. may be higher than that of some of slower ranchers.). The public television program you are watching suggests that the ranchers want the Congress to pass a law mandating a massive kill off of the coyotes. You are outraged. You want to help kill the coyote bill.

If you write to your Congressman and he is not on the Committee on Natural Resources, you will get a nice machine created response thanking you for your interest and your letter will have no effect at all. What you should do instead is to call your Congressman’s office in Washington, which you can do toll free, and ask the appropriate Legislative Aid to find out for you which people on the Committee on Natural Resources are on the subcommittee dealing with the coyote bill. Then, ask your congressman’s Legislative Aid if they can find out which members on that subcommittee are wavering (They usually will be glad to talk to Legislative Aids on that subcommittee and then call you back.). On that subcommittee there will be some who always side with the Ranchers’ Association (usually Republicans), and some who always will side with the coyotes (usually Democrats). You want the very few who are wavering, who might go either way. Then, use the toll free numbers to call the offices of those Congressmen and ask who ever answers the phone which Legislative Aid in that office is dealing with the Coyote Bill. Get their names, and write directly to them using the Congressman’s office address. They will be flattered that the letter came to them, and, they will know that they are dealing with someone who understands the system. One caution: Write on the back of the envelope, “Do not return to your Congressman’s name.” If you don’t do that it may be sent back to your congressman to open as a courtesy! Also, on the inside say, “Please do not respond with a form letter.” That will force them to actually compose a response. Also, suggest that you will call back in a few days to see how things are going. That will encourage them to take your requests more seriously.

All this may sound a bit complicated but it is not really. And, don’t worry that Legislative Aids will not want to be bothered. They like calling around, in the name of their boss, to get information. It will be fun for them. And, you will have a shot at really getting something done. The Rancher’s Association probably will have people lobbying in Washington and they will know enough to target the very wavering Congressmen you are writing to. Someone as concerned as you needs to push back. You can feel good about the fact that you cared enough to get to the people who will really be making the decision. And, somewhere in the West, cute little coyote pups may thank you!

So, don’t be shy! If you understand the system you can have real influence even if you are not a member of the rich and the powerful. Try it!

H.J. Rishel


Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Hank Rishel’s story.