Washington Insider
How to give lawmakers a piece of your mind

The squeaky wheel really does get the oil! Lawmakers cannot help solve your problem if you have not told them about it. You may feel as though you are one voice in our big country, but if you don't speak up, who is going to do it for you? OOIDA has a membership of 45,000 small business truckers. Land Line has an even broader readership. If each person reading this article did their part to contact their lawmakers, it would have a powerful effect on the decisions lawmakers make. Your job is to educate lawmakers about your opinion.

There are several ways to educate your lawmakers: Write a letter to them, make a telephone call to his or her office, send them an e-mail, or meet with them. In part one of this two-part series, writing or calling your lawmaker are the options examined. In part two (to be published in the April issue of Land Line) look for tips on meeting with your elected reps.

Included in both part one and two are good tips for maximizing the impression you make on the lawmaker. Like anything worth doing in life, the greater effort you make to educate your lawmaker, the better result you will get.

The best bang for your buck if you follow a few simple rules. Second only to meeting with the lawmaker, letters are the most respected form of communication from constituents. A letter writer is practically guaranteed to get a response from a lawmaker. A lawmaker can lose face and a lot of public trust if constituents don't get a response and then tell all their neighbors that the lawmaker did not respond and must not care about them.

Letters do not have to be literary masterpieces. All you need to do is state your concern for an issue in your own words, speaking from your heart. Keep it to one subject at a time. At the beginning of the letter state clearly what your subject is and your position on it. After that, describe how the issue affects you. Then ask them to help you on the issue. Make sure you type or write your name and complete address clearly so that they know where to send a response. That's it! This might sound simple but this is all you need to write in a letter.

Letters are respected by lawmakers because an individual person has taken the time to write them and put them in the mail. Even if you think you got a form letter back, the lawmaker will have a record that a letter came in from you on your issue, and more importantly (and hopefully), that many letters came in from OOIDA members on that issue.

When a lawmaker has to make a decision on an issue, one of the first questions they ask their staff is "What are the constituents saying about this issue?" If the congressman hears that he received 100 letters on the issue, that can weigh heavily in his or her decision making. This is especially so if few or no people have written in on the other side of the issue. Few things thrill a lawmaker more than being able to write to constituents telling them that he or she did what they asked. For them, it's like putting a vote in the bank.

This could be a waste of time unless you know a couple of tricks. There is no guarantee that phone calls will get nearly the same time and attention from a lawmaker's staff than a simple letter. Phone calls to lawmakers' offices are rarely noted or written down. Usually when one calls a lawmaker's office a receptionist or intern will answer the phone, and after you've said your peace they say "Thanks for calling, I'll pass your comments on to the congressman" and move on to the next phone call. No phone calls get written down or noticed unless there are hundreds of calls on a very big issue such as the impeachment of a president or the possibility of war.

If you do decide to call your lawmaker, especially your representative or senator, then ask to speak to the legislative assistant ("L.A.") handling the issue you are calling about. If it is about trucking or the highways, ask for the "transportation L.A." If the issue is about taxes, ask for the "tax L.A." etc. By doing this you know at least that you will be speaking with the person who advises the lawmaker on that particular issue. (See the sidebar on the importance of staff members.) If the staff person is not there, ask for his or her name, leave a voice mail, and keep calling until they take your call or return your call.

Not all lawmakers have or use the technology to process and respond to e-mail messages. E-mail is not yet a sure way of communication with all lawmakers. Some offices reply and some do not. On one hand, some offices answer e-mail because they want to show that they have up-to-date technology. On the other hand, some offices consider how little time it takes to shoot off an e-mail and treat them like telephone calls rather than traditional letters.

The trend, however, is for offices to reply to all e-mails with a general acknowledgment e-mail and then follow that up with a traditional letter response if the e-mail author lives in the lawmaker's jurisdiction and provided his or her postal address in the e-mail.

Final Advice: Be respectful
No matter how mad you are about an issue or at a lawmaker, always try to communicate in a civil tone and use respectable language. Use Walter Cronkite, and not Rush Limbaugh, as your model for how to talk to lawmakers and their staff. If you are mad, by all means tell them, but do not use them as a punching bag for your words. It will only work against you. You want them to be sympathetic to your words, not turned off.