May 21, 2018
“Once you hear the thunder, it’s too late to build the ark.” When I heard this phrase, I was immediately struck by how perfectly it summarizes the importance of engaging with your legislators. It’s imperative to engage with and know your legislators before you need something from them. As it’s an election year, legislators are more focused on constituents than ever. This is the perfect opportunity to get to know both your sitting legislators and the candidates running for office. Take advantage!
According to a survey done by the Congressional Management Foundation (CMF), to understand their constituents’ priorities, legislators rank district events, personalized messages from constituents, townhalls, district meetings, and telephone town halls as the most important avenues for contact. To help you get the most out of engaging with your legislators, I’ve provided some tools and tips to help you effectively engage through these avenues.
Whether you’re writing, calling, or talking with your legislator in person, a personal message that appeals to your legislator is essential. Any communication with a congressional office should have: (1) a specific request or ask, (2) your reason for wanting the member of Congress to support or oppose the issue, (3) a personal story related to the issue, and (4) information about how the issue impacts the district. According to a survey of Congressional offices by CMF, constituents most often don’t include points three and four. The same survey found that information about how the issue impacts the district was the most helpful information for the office.
In addition to the normal August recess, when members of Congress return to their districts to re-connect with constituents, legislators will also be in the district for several weeks in October and November. During this time, they will be hosting events at local schools and universities, community organizations, and with local officials to share how they have been working for the community. Check out your local paper and your legislators’ websites to see if there’s an event happening near you that you can attend. This gives you a great opportunity to meet your legislator, learn about what they’re working on, and ask questions or express your views on your legislator’s actions.
Town halls and Tele-Town halls
Most members of Congress hold regular town halls in their districts; these are an open forum for constituents to talk to and ask questions of the legislator. In general, town halls are not well attended so showing up to a town hall often guarantees an opportunity to ask questions of the member. Be sure to arrive early to meet Congressional staff and bring a one-pager to ensure your legislator and their office remember your issue.
Members also hold tele-town halls where their constituents can call-in to a virtual town hall. To ensure you don’t miss a town hall and get invited to tele-town halls, it’s important to be on your member of Congress’ listserv, which you can sign-up for on their site. If you attend a town hall, be sure to ask a question. At a tele-town hall, be aware that your question may be vetted so be sure to keep your question as substantive as possible.
Meeting with your member of Congress or their staff is the single greatest way to learn more about your member of Congress and sway their opinion on an issue they have not yet taken a position on. Scheduling a meeting with your member of Congress’ office is equally effective in the district and D.C. Anything discussed at a meeting in the district will be relayed back to the policy staff in D.C. AGU makes it easy to plan and meet with your legislator with our step-by-step toolkit.
I encourage you to take advantage of this election year by engaging with your local, state, and federal legislators. I also encourage you to find colleagues, neighbors, and friends to join you – talking with your policymakers is easier and more convincing if you can provide multiple points of view about why an issue is important. When it comes to engagement, there is strength in numbers!
As always AGU’s public affairs team is here to help. Contact us at [email protected].
 The Congressional Management Foundation (CMF) is a 501(c)(3) nonpartisan nonprofit. CMF’s the Partnership for a More Perfect Union is dedicated to enhancing communications, understanding, and the relationship between citizens and Congress.