Contacting members of Congress

Writing in the Albany Democrat-Herald, editor Hasso Hering shares a tip with his readers: Don't bother sending a letter to your member of Congress. And email doesn't work either.

Why? And what should we do instead?

There’s a reason members of Congress don’t have publicly available e-mail addresses: They and their office staffs would get swamped, nobody would get through, and none of their staffers would get any work done other than coping with spam.

That is why, if you want to send them a message by e-mail, you have to go to their websites. The sites are set up to sort messages by ZIP code and subject matter and to route them to staff members dealing with particular subjects.

Really? Spam? Yup:

When they had a public [email address], Wyden’s office would get something like 500,000 e-mails a day as interest groups around the world would bombard members of Congress with messages. So now Wyden and others in Congress have their websites set up so only people from their respective states can get through.

And regular mail?

Traditional mail to Congress is still screened following the anthrax attack after 9/11. It is collected at a center away from the Capitol and checked for any problems. One of the things they do is to irradiate the mail in order to kill any spores or germs. When all that is done, the mail is forwarded to the Capitol. The result: For a traditional letter to reach a congressional office may take up to a month.

But if a website message just won't suffice:

If you need to reach Wyden’s office quickly, for example, Hoelzer advises that you telephone or write to the Portland office. Sen. Gordon Smith and our five members of the House, including Darlene Hooley and Peter DeFazio for the mid-valley, all have Oregon offices through which their principals can be reached.

How often do you contact your members of Congress? What sort of replies have you gotten? Anybody you want to give kudos to? Or raspberries?


  • (Show?)

    Having worked in a Congressional office before, I always recommend contacting your local office as opposed to the D.C. office. At the office in which I worked, I was the one who opened the mail every day. Items were sorted based on type - constituent problems (IRS, INS, SSA, FCC, etc.), comments and such on policy, and business mail (phone bill and such).

    Constituent problems were logged into the system with their contact information and their issue. A copy was kept for our office, and then it was assigned to one of the constituent service reps at either the Galveston or Beaumont office.

    Business mail went to the main district office in Beaumont.

    Letters about issues were logged into the system. Every few days we then would Fed-Ex a package of the letters to the D.C. office. When it was a major issue or was time sensitive, we faxed it the day we received it, and the also mailed it. On really hot button issues (such as Clinton's impeachment), we kept a daily tally of calls, mails, and visits that showed how many people were on each side who lived in the district.

    The D.C. office is often times more likely to be inundated with out-of-district mail than your local office. Which means that also slows things down.

  • (Show?)

    I gotta say, for all the negative feedback I've seen on here, every time I've called Gordon Smith's office, I've gotten a courteous person on the other end of the phone.

    Not that a polite staff excuses his atrocious voting record, but I have to wonder about all the comments I've seen on here over the last year or so - they don't match my experience at all.

    That goes for Blumenauer and Wyden's offices, as well, and about tenfold for Gordly and Cannon's offices.

  • Bert Lowry (unverified)

    I usually telephone either the Portland or D.C. office when I want to contact a member of congress. I try to make it as easy as possible for the staffer who answers the phone. I tell them my name, that I'm a constituent, and that I'm urging the (Senator/Congressman) to vote (for/against) a particular bill. The whole thing takes between 15 second and 1 minute, depending on how much contact information the aid collects.

    I rarely reach an actual person when I call Senator Smith's office. The last time I called, I reached an actual person, but he transfered me to voicemail mid-sentence. I think I got as far as "Hi. My name is Bert Lowry and I'm a constituent of Senator Smith..."

  • Tom Keffer (unverified)

    I've got to agree with Pete: I've also found Smith's office very responsive and courteous. On some issues they are way less equivocating than Wyden's.

    My rep is Walden. Responses can take months if they happen at all.

  • JohnH (unverified)

    I have NEVER had a response to anything from Wyden or Smith. That includes calls, emails, and letters. Wyden at least makes himself publicly available from time to time, so if you're lucky you can ask him a question. Smith, like Bush and Cheney, could care less about ordinary voters.

    DeFazio does regular open meetings, particularly during election season, and will occasionally send responses.

  • (Show?)

    I always find the best way to get an answer to a question from a Congressman or Senator is to go to a town hall and ask them.

    Presidential town halls are filled to the brim. Not so much for Congressmen, who seem to almost need to beg their constituents to participate in a little civic engagement. So you'll almost certainly get to ask your question, or even make a suggestion.

    Do it often enough, and your Congressman/Senator will even begin to recognize you.

  • spicey (unverified)

    best I've experienced is making an appt. for the DC or other office and showing up to talk to a staffer. sometimes the rep. or senator is there, too, making it possible to meet with them. bringing a group helps.

  • Sid Leader (unverified)

    As a former CNN Capitol Hill news producer, I would say the two best ways to contact your congress person is to call them and give the nice, fresh-faced intern some "hell" (believe me -- they WILL pass that along) or go to a campaign stop and get in their face personally.

    Kinda like the New Orleans doctor who told Vice President Dick Cheney to "fock himself" right in the middle of a N.O. street, on tape, a week or ten after Hurricane Katrina.

    Now, the Secret Service did handcuff the good doctor and detained him until Cheney left for an undisclosed, underage brothel, er, hiding place, I mean.

    As Warner Wolf used to say, in DC, let's go the the videotape!

  • Adam (unverified)

    I interned in Senator Smith's office, and I can tell you they get an enormous amount of email, telephone calls, and snail mail. Due to the high volume of phone calls, their policy was to offer a written response only when somebody wrote in. There are usually only two individuals working on the phones at any given time, and they are also responsible for greeting individuals for appointments, organizing tours, and a number of other small things which makes their day chaotic. It may not sound like a lot, but it all adds up.

  • Adam (unverified)

    I interned in Senator Smith's office, and I can tell you they get an enormous amount of email, telephone calls, and snail mail. Due to the high volume of phone calls, their policy was to offer a written response only when somebody wrote in. There are usually only two individuals working on the phones at any given time, and they are also responsible for greeting individuals for appointments, organizing tours, and a number of other small things which makes their day chaotic. It may not sound like a lot, but it all adds up.

  • andrew (unverified)

    I interned in Wu's office and they replied in writing to every letter or fax they received. Usually they were able to just send back a form letter outlining Wu's position on the issue and thanking them for writing.

    Phone calls went into a daily tally that was sent up the chain of command.

    Any letters or faxes that were from someone outside the district were stamped "Respectfully refered, no response sent" and forwarded to the office of sender's representative.

  • (Show?)


    Ours was similar, except that we responded in writing to letters as well. I put together a quick form that we tried to fill out for every call. I think the sheet fit something like 3 calls on a page. It asked for name, address, and phone number and then lines to write in what they were calling about. Those sheets were faxed to DC, and that office responded - often times with a form letter on the position.

    Every contact was also recorded in the constituent database.

    That database was amazing, because you could easily pull up constituents concerned about any number of issues. This worked well when we were holding a town hall on say education, because we could send those constituents a letter letting them know.

  • Fair Trader (unverified)

    A great way to contact your Congressperson is by showing up at their office--maybe with someone in George Bush mask, and some videocameras. And then post the whole thing on Youtube. That's what we did to denounce Earl Blumenauer for his involvement with the secret trade deal of 2007. The video is now up on various blogs, too bad it wasn't posted here.

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  • Fair Trade (unverified)

    Here's the link to the video in case anyone wants to check it out (caution--fans of Earl Blumenauer or people without a sense of humor might be offended)

  • Grant Schott (unverified)

    When I call a member's office, I feel like the receptionist is clueless and isn't really recording my response.

    Writing seems to be effective. A couple of years ago I wrote the Oregon delegation requesting more of a response to the Darfur crisis. For each Rep, I had five to ten co-signers from her/his district. Most of the members replied with a detailed response within a month or two. The receptions tell me that e-mail responses will receive the same priority as letters

    I would also add that when I interned for Sen. Packwood in 1994 (I was a Democrat but I heard it was an exciting office!), we put all "Dear Bob" letters in a separate pile, in the event that they were from his friends, donors, etc... SO, if you write "Dear Gordon," you might get a quicker response than if you write "Dear Senator Smith."

  • M. Oventhes (unverified)

    Sid Leader: Giving an intern "hell" as you put it will most certainly NOT get you anywhere. I was employed with the House Administration Committee for 5 years before I became an L.A. for a NC congressman. Within House Admin. I was in charge of coordinating the interns in various Members' offices. I can tell you first hand that shit talking to an intern will only lead to that individual mocking you in front of the entire office and then blowing off your request for whatever you called about.

    I could tell you endless horror stories of constituents' requests being litterally thrown out because of a caller's bad attitude. I personally shredded a constituent request for disability advocacy because he insulted my intelligence. The man lost lease on his apartment because I didn't make a record of his case. That was almost 15 years ago, but the lesson remains the same: don't bite the hand that feeds you.

    So stop pissing off the interns that I spent years trying to train.

  • Steve Buel (unverified)

    I am always amazed at how little the people who answer the phones in congressional offices know about the positions of their rep or senator. They say they will pass on my comments and that is about it. When I heard about the Canadian citizen who the U.S. sent off to Syria to be tortured I called Smith's office and the person answering the phone said they couldn't tell me if G.Smith was for torture or not. I said, "Then it is possible Senator Smith is for torture?" They said they would pass my concern along. It was pure torture talking to the person so maybe Smith was for torture after all. The worst experience I have had was recently with the Oregon office of Rep. Walden. I called to suggest he begin bringing articles of impeachment for both Bush and Cheney. The person asked for my address. I told him I lived in Portland but that Walden votes on hundreds and probably thousands of bills which affect me and that he also is in a body that makes decisions affecting the entire United States. He told me that my "opinion didn't matter" since I was not in his district. I am sending money to his opponent in the next election. I wonder if Walden is refusing to accept money from outside his district since anyone outside his district doesn't matter. Guess he never heard of the 1st amendment. Redress of grievances and all that.

  • LiberalIncarnate (unverified)

    I interned with the DPO. I was amazed at how many people called to bitch about this person or that. I listened as compassionately as I could, then suggested that they call their representative directly or if they weren't happy with the DPO, that they should become involved to change it. Unfortunately, I think that most of these people just wanted to bitch and weren't really interested in taking it a step further.

    The advice that I would offer:

    1)Know who you are contacting!

    2)A democracy requires action more than merely bitching.

    3)A democracy doesn't work if you are not informed.

    The founding fathers were rightfully concerned that a democracy would not work in America because it would require citizens to be educated and informed. I am not for limiting the vote to those that are properly educated and informed, but rather, that people are expected to know about issues that can affect themselves AND their neighbors.

  • wharf rat (unverified)

    Hi Folks:

    Steve Buel, please read M. Oventhes post immediately preceeding yours.

    Regardless of the type of contact politeness counts just as it does in any business. Argumentative snarkiness, especially directed at interns or reception staff, almost always qualifies the caller for membership in the "A", for #sshat, list.


  • Dan Bliss (unverified)

    Steve, obviously you don't know anything about position papers in congressional

  • Marcher (unverified)

    "I could tell you endless horror stories of constituents' requests being litterally thrown out because of a caller's bad attitude. I personally shredded a constituent request for disability advocacy because he insulted my intelligence. The man lost lease on his apartment because I didn't make a record of his case. That was almost 15 years ago, but the lesson remains the same: don't bite the hand that feeds you."

    Nice! Someone insulted your infinite wisdom, so you helped get him lose his home? No wonder so many people hate our "representatives". I especially like the part about "the hand that feeds you"--when it was those people you were supposed to serve that put your boss in power in the first place. Are you still in politics, M. Oventhes? Mind telling me who you work for, so I can be sure to vote against them next time around?

  • M. Oventhes (unverified)

    Marcher, clearly you don't bother reading entire posts as I mentioned that I am an L.A. for a congressman from North Carolina, a state I doubt you are registered in. But good luck anyway. Additionally, my "hand that feeds you" comment was meant to suggest that beyond even the realm of government, the golden rule applies to all humans, everywhere. True, my salary is paid by your taxes but in a way we are all gatekeepers of some sort. The guy that pumps your gas, the pizza delivery boy, your Senator, each has the ability to provide you with something you can't provide for yourself. So don't fuck that person, because you may alienate the man with keys. Hopefully this isn't too harsh a reality for you, but it is how the world works. Last time I checked this was a progressive blog, not a wide-eyed naive one. A bit of advice, put down the high school civics "Stars and Stripes" idealist crap, do a decade on the Hill, and then tell me where you stand.

    "Our representative democracy is one of a delegative nature."

  • (Show?)

    it might help to know that Hasso Herring is a hard-right editor, not wingnutty but no friend to progressives at all. people in Corvallis are subjected to his views on Sunday due to the arrangement between the Democrat(hah)-Herald and Gazette-Times, which kind of spoils part of the day for Benton Blues.

    i've never heard of any of Oregon's Congressional reps being anything but open and responsive -- ok, Smith's office when we ask him to do what we want, maybe not so much. but i've called DeFazio, Hooley and Wyden repeatedly over the years, and never got anything but good service. years and years ago, when i did a short internship with AuCoin, they bent over backwards to help people.

    it's hard enough for the Reps and Senators to stay on top of all the issues, not to mention their key staff. but the ones who answer phones have a ton of admin duties, and it's not their job to be the clearinghouse of info on issues. if you get friendliness, a message taken properly and follow-up (when requested), rejoice. that's better than you get in a lot of businesses.

  • Marcher (unverified)

    M. Oventhes, clearly you like to make assumptions and sling the insults. I did read your whole post, which was not very clear about your current postion. All it said was that you "became" a LA. Kinda sounded like that was in the past to me. And since you were posting on an Oregon blog, I wasn't sure what your deal was.

    The difference between the pizza delivery guy, the gas station guy, and you is who you all work for. I know not to piss off the person making my food, but when it comes to Congress, I feel like they owe me, and usually I have some kind of a gripe. Often the best way to get attention from my Congressperson is by pissing him off. Bird-dogging is also kinda fun! Maybe it is high school civics crap, but y'all are supposed to serve your constituents, and shredding some guys documents and helping him lose his lease becuase he insulted your intelligence is shitty.

    On the wide-eyed naivete, it's not happening here. I'm about as cynical as you can get, and would never do a decade on the hill as I believe Congress is the last place to go to make any worthwile social change. I think that our country is going down the drain fast, and Congress is more beholden to their corporate donors than their constituents with no health care, no good jobs, and kids in the military.

    This is supposed to be a progressive blog, but it's mostly a big pep rally for local Democrats who are far from progressive.

  • (Show?)

    If you really want to get the ear of your representitves, try joining your county party and serving on some committees. I'm an elected Precinct Person, a House District Leader, and an alternate to the 1st Congressional District Committee. I guarantee David Wu knows me by name, and will give me the time of day when he is available. And when I phone his office, I mention I'm with the Washington County Democrats and on the 1st CDC, and they listen with great care and sincerity. I know all the State Reps & Sens in WashCO, and they know me by name and actually listen and discuss issues with me. Perhaps the best way to affect government is from the inside.

  • (Show?)

    I cannot imagine handling a constituent the way M. Oventhes says above.

    Only once did I ever not work on a constituent's case because of the way he acted. And since I answered the phones and greeted people in addition to handling casework, I spoke with the bulk of constituents calling with problems - literally thousands in the time I worked there.

    That one time was an exception. The guy came in and wanted an exemption for his son's mobile home on Bolivar Peninsula. The rules were to protect the structure during a hurricane, and if you've ever been to Bolivar, you know often times it's not much wider than the road, and at its widest I doubt it could be much more than a mile, if that. It sticks right out into the bay/ocean. And it gets hit really hard.

    There was of course nothing we could do - not only were exemptions never made, it was a city/county/state thing - completely out of our realm of jurisdiction.

    When I explained there was nothing we could do, the man proceeded to threaten to kill the staff, the city council, the county commission, the Congressman and the President.

    As soon as he left, we alerted the U.S. Marshals downstairs. They in turn contacted the FBI and Secret Service. For at least a week we had a police escort to all events. And a panic button was installed under my desk.

    That was the only time we ever refused to work on a case because of how someone acted.

    All other refused cases were because they were out of district, and courtesy says you allow the person's member of Congress to handle it. In the rare case that they did not, we took on the case (this happened sometimes with DeLay's office).

    Constituents calling, visiting, or writing into the office should always be treated with courtesy. If they insist on cursing and yelling at you, you do have the right to warn them that you do not have to take such abuse and can then either hang up if they continue or have them escorted out of the office. But often times people with constituent issues are so frustrated by the time they reach a member of Congress' office that they're very upset and need to vent. After venting, they're usually very nice people and extremely appreciative of any assistance the office can give them.

    I have to say that constituent work is probably the thing I miss the most about working in a Congressional office.

    As far as knowing the member of Congress' position on items... that's not surprising. There are so many topics, and often times you've only been told the official position on a few. So unless you've been given leave to give out certain information, you can only say you don't know. That can be the most frustrating part of the job, so please don't blame them.

  • Steve Buel (unverified)

    I plead guilty to believing in the Constitution and trying to get government to follow it. Guilty, guilty, guilty (as Marc in Doonesbury once said). But I am always polite and courteous until I am treated badly, just stand my ground. That's what seems to irritate them. Government often wants you to roll over and not point out the problems. Sorry, I read too much stuff on the Founding Fathers to go down that road. And I have worked on numerous campaigns, run for office, taught political science and stay informed. Hardly Mr. Naive. It seems like a person who is working in a congressional office should kind of know how the Rep. or Senator stands on major issues. That isn't too much to ask.

  • (Show?)

    It seems like a person who is working in a congressional office should kind of know how the Rep. or Senator stands on major issues. That isn't too much to ask.

    That seems so easy when you're on the outside. I assure you it isn't that easy.

    Unless you're a staffer working on legislative issues, you have very little information regarding the bills and issues coming up before Congress, other than what you hear on the news or in the newspaper. You're typically too busy working on constituent issues.

    The local office I worked on completely focused on legislative issues, and we routinely only heard the Congressman's position on something when we were given the official position on something that we were allowed to share with the public.

    Sometimes you hear through the grapevine what a position on something is, but unless you've been given the official position and talking points, typically you're not allowed to speak on behalf of the member of Congress.

    Usually you're told to tell people on the phone that unless you've been given that official information, you're to tell callers and office visitors that you don't know and will pass along their comments to the member of Congress.

    You have to remember that the people there answering phones and greeting office visitors are employees of the member of Congress (they're not truly federal employees, although they get some of the benefits like health care) and can be fired just like anyone else. And speaking on behalf of the member of Congress without being given leave to do so is definitely something you can be fired for.

  • Delia (unverified)

    I have had personal replies from Pete DeFazio's office to issue postcards and even petitions I've signed. Yesterday I called Wyden's office in D.C. about the habeas corpus issue and spoke with a very courteous staffer. Who knows what she does with the info, but she took my zip code, so they must compile the information somehow. This mornining I just called Smith's office on the same issue and got shuttled to a voicemail box.

  • sbuel (unverified)

    Jenni, Here is my morning briefing memo for all staffers answering phones.

    from the desk of Senator Buel (you may share these views with all contituents and anyone else who asks)

    I support the following: Impeach both Bush and Cheney. Get out of Iraq as fast as humanly possible. All government officials should follow the Constitution and the laws of the United States. Seal the borders, allow illegal aliens to register within 90 days and then get on a citizenship track they
    must complete in order to stay in the U.S. Use the best parts of health care programs from around the world and come up with universal health care. Dump No Child Left Behind. Repeal Bush's tax breaks for the top 2%. Take 50% of the money being spent on Iraq and for the next two years go after terrorism and improve homeland security. If it is pro environment I am probably for it. I don't believe in torture.

    (see, it's not that hard)

  • (Show?)

    With the exception of the standard curtness of Smith's office, I've never received anything but courtesy and responsiveness from any of my representatives. I don't recall ever sending a note to Blumenauer's office that I didn't receive a response to, and usually fairly quickly. Wyden and Smith almost always send a letter reply, although they may take awhile.

    As for staff members knowing the positions of who they work for, I find that most everyone I talk to knows at least the broad picture of where their boss stands, and will say straight out that if they aren't sure, they aren't going to speak for them. Usually when this has happened, including in D.C., they offer to get back to me, and I leave them my card. I have yet to have an instance where they didn't follow up and get back to me, including Smith's aides.

  • Blueshift (unverified)

    Here are some helpful tips to keep in mind if you want to contact your elected representatives (at the state or federal level):

    General Rules -BE POLITE. As Jenni says above, you'll probably be helped even if you're rude, but you won't give staffers or their bosses any reason to take you seriously or prioritize your needs if you insult or abuse them. -BE PATIENT. Staffers are dealing with hundreds (or thousands) of bills, dozens of constituent cases, media concerns, scheduling, and internal office tasks. It might take them a few days, or a month, to get back to you. If you have an urgent case, call back and remind them, but remember that you aren't the only thing on the legislative To-Do list.

    By Phone -Know the details about your topic BEFORE you pick up the phone. This includes knowing the bill number, amendment designation, and what chamber the bill is in. Staffers are dealing with literally thousands of bills, and if you call in and only know that the bill you hate/love has something to do with "education," the odds are pretty high that the person on the other end of the line won't be able to give you a detailed response. -Remember that when staffers are on the phone with you, that is ALL they are doing. I cannot tell you the number of times I've had someone tell me that they support/oppose something, then sit and wait expectantly as though I am going to get up right that second and do their will. Staffers are generally more than happy to record your opinion and pass it on to their boss, but they aren't going to go and convince that boss to change his/her vote while you're still on the phone. The same thing goes if you're calling in with a question about your rep's position--you might have to wait while the staffer finds out what it is.

    By Email or Snail Mail -If you are writing about a personal issue, make sure you include all the relevant information, in a readable format. Don't assume that your reader will know anything about your case before they read the letter. Include dates, contacts, and a chronological record of events. The constituent cases that get solved first are the ones that don't require staffers to figure out what's going on before they get to work. -DO NOT SEND A FORM LETTER. If you want your opinion to get some actual attention, take the time to write your own letter. Otherwise, the best you can hope for is to have your name and address added to a list of other people who didn't care enough to write individual letters on a given topic. You can use the form letter for inspiration, but don't waste staffers' time reading if you aren't willing to spend your own writing.

  • (Show?)


    First, a member of Congress would actually have to make that list. Most don't.

    • Some don't do it because they're very busy.

    • Others don't do it because they'd rather not come out and say how they feel on an issue. They figure people will find out when/if a vote happens.

    • With some it isn't black/white. Their position comes with a detailed explanation, and they'd rather not leave that to a staffer on the phone.

    • Sometimes they don't want to add to the long list of things the people working in the local office need to know or do. Those people are usually tasked on constituent and local issues. I know my personal caseload rarely went below a few hundred active cases. They'd rather you take down a constituent's information and then it be handled by the people in D.C. who work on legislative issues. And those aren't the people you're going to get on the phone in D.C.

  • byard pidgeon (unverified)

    I have called, and sent email, to Senators Wyden and Smith, and Reps de Fazio and Walden. I've received responses to all emails, as I recall, and sometimes a letter by mail.

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