Wander through the halls of the Russell or Rayburn Office
Buildings and you will see that members of Congress are
absolutely inundated with written and verbal communications.
Phones ring incessantly, fax machines never stop, mail is
delivered in big canvas bags, and e-mail arrives in torrents.
Donít get me wrong. Iím not asking you to pity the 535
members of the United States Senate and House of
Representatives. They are paid reasonably well for their work,
and they fight like cats and dogs to get the job in the first
place. I do, however, ask you to pity the poor junior-level
staff person who gets stuck sorting postcards, answering first
class mail, wading through faxes and email, or answering the
These bright, young faces fresh from college thought they
were coming to Washington to begin a glamorous career. Wrong.
They voluntarily committed themselves into indentured
servitude. Someday they will graduate into the ranks of such
venerable institutions as corporate offices, law and lobbying
firms, and trade associations. In the mean-time, their lives
will be a living hell.
I should know; 25 years ago I was one of them. (See related
In the olden days, we only had five phone lines and snail
mail. Facsimile machines, e-mail, and other forms of instant
communication were only a glimmer in some techno-nerdís eye.
Today, instead of two channels of communication, there are
four: mail, e-mail, fax, and phone. And, all of those channels
are clogged much of the time. Often, when a message must be
delivered, you have to resort to hand-carrying it. So,
whatís a good government relations person in an association
to do? How do you get a message to Congress these days?
Regular Mail. As was true when I served on
Capitol Hill, incoming mail is still separated initially into
"bulk" and "personalized" mail piles.
While all letters and postcards (at least from the home state
or district) are answered, the bulk mail literally never makes
it out of the mailroom. The only thing that a member knows
about quantity mail is how much was received. Personalized
mail, on the other hand, is still viewed as a good gauge of
public opinion, and it remains the single most influential
form of Congressional communication.
By the way, donít think that bulk mail can be disguised
as personalized mail. The bright, young indentured
servants/legislative correspondents look at hundreds or
thousands of pieces of mail in any given week. Trust me. They
can always spot the difference between a generated letter and
one that comes from the heart.
Phone Calls. Like traditional mail, phone
calls can truly help determine the outcome of a particular
issue. Calls immediately preceding a floor vote are especially
useful. However, there are some important things to keep in
mind when setting up a phone campaign to Congress:
Emphasize the importance of keeping the call short and
sweet. Tone, content, and delivery are all critical
elements. Each and every caller must be pleasant,
informed, and to the point.
Most Congressional offices have a bias against forms of
communication that force a staff person to interrupt what they
were doing (such as to answer the phone) or tie up/consume
office resources (such as phone/fax lines). Therefore, it
should come as no surprise that these offices donít
appreciate organized phone campaigns. If your association uses
this method of communication, do so judiciously, and only
after careful consideration of the alternatives.
Facsimile Broadcasts. Before e-mail, the
most cost-effective form of instant communication with members
of Congress was a facsimile transmission. In the initial days
of slow fax machines and curly, coated fax paper, unsolicited
faxes to Congressional offices were often resented because
they interfered with solicited faxes. Even as transmission
speeds improved and plain-paper machines became the norm, the
sheer quantity of faxes often led members to take actions such
as installing additional fax machines with unlisted numbers.
The problem with facsimile broadcasts is that this form of
communication costs the recipient something of value. Every
incoming fax consumes paper and toner, and ties up the fax
line. Although opinion on this point varies widely from office
to office, most Congressional staffers will tell you that
faxes should be reserved either for solicited communications
or for an occasional urgent message sent by the head of an
association on behalf of its entire membership.
Distribution of a member of Congressí fax number with
instructions to "send them a barrage of faxes," is a
grassroots lobbying technique that is doomed to make far more
enemies than friends.
E-mail. Those of you who have read this
far expecting me to tell you "e-mail is the
solution" are about to be sorely disappointed. E-mail is
even less effective than regular bulk mail. At least incoming
snail mail can be sorted in the mailroom. With e-mail there is
no way for a legislative correspondent to distinguish (without
reading each and every message), which e-mail is like a bulk
mail postcard and which is like an individualized first-class
letter. Thus, in most offices they treat all generated e-mail
as if it were bulk mail.
While quantity e-mail ó like quantity bulk mail or phone
calls ó can help run up the tally before a major vote, be
forewarned that the price to be paid can be quite substantial.
Effective Lobbying Still Requires an Individualized
Many eons ago, when I was a legislative assistant on
Capitol Hill, grassroots lobbying techniques were in their
infancy. It was rare, indeed, to see an organized
letter-writing campaign. A quarter-century later, lobbying has
come virtually full circle. Grassroots campaigns are so
commonplace that they clog all of the channels going into a
Congressional office, save one: the front door.
Individual contacts made by people with an established
relationship remain the most effective way of persuading a
member of Congress to take one action or another.
As a registered lobbyist and organizer of many
Congressional communications campaigns, I have found that the
following techniques still work on Capitol Hill:
Get your communications noticed. Once you know how each
LA prefers to receive information, you must figure out how
to ensure that your correspondence rises above the rest.
Content, style, and brevity are all important elements.
Many trade and professional associations count
Congressional relations among their essential priorities. For
these associations and other organizations, figuring out how
to communicate effectively with members of the House and
Senate is, and will remain, a major challenge. Given the
ever-increasing cacophony of calls, letters, faxes, and
e-mails, just being heard above the noise is a significant