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Is there any point in writing to a congressperson? Are letters or calls they receive actually likely to affect their choices?

As a former intern for a United States Senator, I can tell you exactly what happens when you write to a congressperson. One of my key intern duties was sorting the mail.

Every day a big stack of mail came in. And every day my fellow interns and I sorted it. Sorting the mail meant giving each piece of mail to the appropriate congressional staff member.

To give you some context, this is the hierarchy of a typical U.S. Senate office:

  1. The Senator (and yes, every Senator is the Senator in their own office)
  2. The Chief of Staff (kind of like the CEO, rockstar #2 of the office)
  3. The Legislative Director (the guy in charge of advancing legislation)
  4. Assistant Legislative Director (the guy behind the guy)
  5. Legislative Aides (aka LA’s, the top level of regular staff)
  6. Legislative Correspondents (aka LC’s, the bottom level of regular staff)
  7. Interns (we worked 10 hours a day for free!)

The mail, which was almost always addressed to the Senator, was typically handled entirely at levels 5–7.

Pro tip: call and get the names of the people at levels 2–4, then address your mail directly to one of them. But they’re busy, so make it good!

I, as an intern, opened and read the mail. The first decision I made was whether it would go to a legislative aide or a legislative correspondent.

If the mail was written by a company or organization, it would go to an LA. Now these legislative aides actually got to speak with the Senator about their policy areas somewhat regularly. Some of them were even in their 40’s and 50’s!

If the mail was written by a regular person, known as a constituent, it would go to an LC. That is the entry level position for paid staff, typically a first job out of college. The upper age range was mid 20’s. There is little opportunity to influence the Senator from this position.

Pro tip: if you are self-employed, write your letter on company letterhead and frame it in terms of your business, so that your letter will reach a legislative aide.

A regular constituent would write a letter. Based on that, I knew that it should go to an LC. Each LC and LA are assigned different subjects, or policy areas. I, the lowly intern, would read the letter just long enough to figure out the subject. Once I knew that, I knew which LC should receive it, and I put it in his or her pile of mail.

So for example, let’s say you write a letter about immigration. Jane is the lucky LC who has been assigned the topic of immigration. I put your letter on Jane’s desk.

Jane adds your letter to her large stack of letters. Jane will read your letter and determine whether you are for or against immigration. No, Jane will not be considering the nuances of what you wrote, such as being for legal immigration, but against illegal immigration.

When she finally gets to your letter, Jane will read it just long enough to determine which side of the issue you are on, so that you receive the form letter intended for people who agree with you.

Pro tip: write about an obscure topic. That way, there might not already be a form letter, and your letter could actually cause the staff and Senator to formulate a position on the issue!

Next, Jane will print out and mail your form letter to you, along with the dozens or hundreds of similar letters that will go out that day. Thank you so much for writing. Constituent letters like yours are very important, and I always love hearing from the people of our great state. Sincerely, your Senator.

Yeah, about that “signature” on your letter… We didn’t even use a signature stamp. The form letters were printed out with the blue signature of the Senator already on it!

Your letter never made it anywhere near your Senator or Representative. Think about it. For a Senate office, there are about 10 LC’s whose job consists almost entirely of what I just described Jane doing. Even the LC’s and interns don’t have time to read everybody’s letters, let alone the actual Senators!

And here’s another little secret—a lot of Senate and Congressional offices don’t even keep track of how many people write or call them on different sides of the issue!

We didn’t!

I remember answering the phone and a guy telling me what he thought about an issue, and then telling me to add him to the list. I just said ok. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that there was no list.

I will say that calls and letters that are part of an organized campaign can potentially be effective. Even if a Congressperson’s office is not keeping a tally, if the phones are ringing off the hook and mail is flooding in for a few days, someone is going to tell them about that. And if they don’t already have a strongly held position on the issue, a barrage of calls and letters could very well make the difference.

Pro tip: write or call your elected representatives as part of an organized group effort, not as an individual on an ad hoc basis. Better yet, be the one to organize the group!

So is there any point in writing to your Congressperson? With the exception of the above tips, probably not if your goal is to actually influence what they will do.

But you can write them to get a real autographed picture, or a big U.S. flag that may or may not have been flown over the Capitol!

And if you are going to be traveling to D.C., call their office ahead of time and you and your family or group can get a free guided tour of the U.S. Capitol, provided by some lucky intern!

Even the little underground train from your Senator’s office building to the Capitol is a pretty cool ride!

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