Sometimes, when it seems that a letter isn't enough, you just have to talk to your member of Congress. It can seem daunting, but it shouldn't be. Remember, for our system to work, you need to be willing to share your thoughts with representatives, and they need to be willing to listen.
In some ways, the easiest step is actually getting in touch. You may not get a member of Congress on the telephone right away, but leave a message, since most members set aside time each week to call back constituents.
Members also make time on their schedules for constituents, so if you're going to be in Washington, set up an appointment in advance. It's even easier to schedule a meeting back home, either in the district office or even at a local coffee spot, when the distractions of the Capitol are far away.
There are other venues, too: public meetings in the district, virtual forums hosted by legislators, even inviting your member of Congress to speak to a local group to which you belong.
Then, once you're on the phone or face to face with your lawmaker, there are certain things you can do that will help you be more credible. Do research beforehand so you're knowledgeable about the issue, and do not overstate your case or try to mislead. Make your case with facts and figures instead of spin. And since you have limited time, be sure to stick to the most important points in your position.
Perhaps the most important advice I can give, though - and I speak from experience - is that how you say it is as important as what you say. It helps to be constructive, to find a way not only to raise a problem but also then help your legislator find a way to solve it.
Be patient, and be unfailingly courteous; knowing how to disagree without being disagreeable is the surest way I know to earn an elected official's respect. Above all, be open to compromise. Making some progress toward your goal is better than none at all.
Finally relax! Say what you want to say, and enjoy your exchanges with your representative. We live in a democracy, and my experience has been that participating in it is both a privilege and a pleasure. I hope that's what you discover, too.
(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)
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