Looking to Influence Your Legislators? Here's How It's Done in Today's Environment.

Getting through to your state or federal legislator is tougher and more confusing than it used to be. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.

In a college dorm conversation, I once lamented to my friend Dave that one person couldn’t possibly make a difference in government.

Dave, born 40 years old, his owlish face framed by dark-rimmed glasses, sat back in his chair, took a puff from his pipe and begged to differ. Making a difference, he said, was deceptively simple. If we all took time to write our Congress members, they would have to listen, and things would change.

Back then I considered that wise advice. Now it seems hopelessly naïve. But Dave was right about one thing: It’s a mistake to opt out of taking part in government because of apathy or cynicism.

Water and wastewater are often targets of significant legislation, for good or ill. People in the treatment profession are uniquely suited to give input on such matters. But in this age of online communication, 24-hour cable channels and a cacophony of news and opinion, how can anyone get the ear of a state legislator or a member of the U.S. Congress?

Multiple channels

Back when Dave and I were in college, it was all about writing letters. I don’t even know if toll-free legislative hotlines existed back then. Today it’s different. A given legislator will likely have Twitter and Facebook accounts, a website and an email address, plus traditional methods of connection.

So, if you want to deliver a message to a legislator, what’s the best channel to use? Different people give different recommendations. For my part, I’ve mostly used email, because it’s easy. That doesn’t mean it’s best. In my opinion, the old-fashioned letter has much more impact.

Someone who took time to write a message, print it, address an envelope and take it to the post office looks inherently more serious than someone who just tapped out words on a keyboard. (Or does that someone just look more old-fashioned?)

Anyway, I looked around on the internet for advice from people in the know. While legislators have different preferences in ways to connect with constituents, I found surprising support for another old-fashioned means of contact: the telephone.

Why not social media? Sources I found say Facebook and Twitter are not very effective. Those channels are often favorites for trolls from the opposite party and are repositories for lots of inflammatory and not very substantive rhetoric. And legislators likely don’t have time to sift through dozens of tweets as they race around the capitol building.

Emails? Most likely, your legislator gets a blizzard of them because, that’s right, it’s easy. So your message stands a good chance of getting buried or ignored. A phone ringing off the hook is a lot harder to ignore than a full email inbox.

How it works

When you make that phone call, you’re not likely to talk to the legislator — you will reach a staff member. That doesn’t mean your call is ineffective. The staffer will relay your message, one way or another. 

A large volume of calls can overwhelm an office, guaranteeing that the boss hears about it. Even as few as a dozen calls targeting one issue can get noticed, especially if it’s a hot issue where the legislator has not yet decided which way to vote.

Staff members who receive calls make notes about them, compile the notes periodically and create reports for the legislator or top aides. If the lawmaker has already taken a position on the issue you’re calling about, the staffer might read you a prepared statement. On the other hand, a flood of calls on an issue could actually lead the legislator to generate a statement. That’s called having an impact.

A few rules to follow

When you call, it’s better to simply speak from the heart instead of reading a prepared set of talking points. Legislative aides suggest making the call as personal as possible. Explain exactly why and how the issue matters to you.

“What representatives and staffers want to hear is the individual impact of your individual story,” one staff member tells The New York Times. “I couldn’t listen to people’s stories for six to eight hours a day and not be profoundly impacted by them.”

When contacting legislators, expertise matters. For example, if you’re a plant operator calling about an issue related to wastewater or drinking water, you will be taken seriously. Calling on behalf of an organization representing hundreds of professionals, such as a state or regional operator association, will be more potent still.

A final note: Be courteous. Legislators and staff members are people. Shouting or (heaven forbid) cursing at them won’t make you more right. It will make you look like a crank and will be counterproductive.

In summary, making a difference in the political process isn’t easy. But one way you can be sure not to make a difference is to avoid engaging in the process.


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