Sierra Club Home Page   Environmental Update  
chapter button
Explore, enjoy and protect the planet
Click here to visit the Member Center.         
Take Action
Get Outdoors
Join or Give
Inside Sierra Club
Press Room
Politics & Issues
Sierra Magazine
Sierra Club Books
Apparel and Other Merchandise
Contact Us

Join the Sierra ClubWhy become a member?

Planet Main
Back Issues
Search for an Article
Free Subscription
In This Section
Table of Contents

The Planet

Influence Without Money: Making your Voice Count

The Planet, October 1995, Volume 2, number 7

The Power of One: How Best to Use It

How much difference does a letter or phone call make?

by Merrik Bush

Will Rogers once said that "Congress is the best that money can buy." Does this mean that a $10,000 gift from a polluter will always wield more influence with legislators than the will of their constituents?

Not according to the legislators who say that come election time, what ultimately counts are citizens' votes. And many members of Congress agree that every letter, phone call, fax e-mail message and personal visit from voters has some measure of influence.

But how much impact your message will have depends on the issue, the timing, the legislator and how it is crafted and conveyed. Not least of all, "the effectiveness of your lobbying activity depends on the degree of opposition and controversy surrounding an issue," said Chris Arthur, legislative director to Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y).

Lawmakers and lobbyists agree that it is much easier to influence legislators on local issues that directly affect their states. Siding with constituents on these "bread and butter" issues garners Publicity and support in home districts. But it's often more difficult to influence legislators on national issues because they may not feel as inclined to change a national vote simply to please a handful of Constituents, especially if that vote engenders popularity with congressional peers.

Democratic Sen. John Kerry, in a July 5 meeting with environmentalists, remarked that most of his colleagues "didn't dig deep" into the implications of legislation they voted on. The Massachusetts senator said that often decisions are based strictly on "cover-your-ass" instincts or the "short politics" of how much money or how many votes a decision will produce in the next election. 'They'll begin listening only if they sense that there are votes at stake," he said.

Additionally, if legislators' positions are undecided and they don't hear from constituents, they may cave in to pressure from other members of Congress and align their vote accordingly. Constituents who speak up at these critical junctures cam be particularly effective. In fact, for some legislators, it takes just a few letters and phone calls from their district to make the difference. "If legislators are on the fence, they're more likely to be influenced by a strong show of' interest from back home," said Arthur "Sometimes they'll even vote your way just to get you off their backs."

The Letter

"Every type of correspondence that states a position is at least tallied and passed on. In our of fine, every letter and phone call counts, especially if the issue is current." --Val Dolcini, legislative assistant to Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

"Perhaps 90 percent of our citizens live and die without ever taking pen in hand and expressing a single opinion to the person who represents them in Congress--a person whose vote may decide what price they will pay for the acts of government, either in dollars or in human lives," wrote the late Rep. Morns Udall (D-Ariz.)in a letter to constituents.

Many grassroots lobbyists and legislators believe the personal letter is the most powerful tool a constituent has next to a private meeting. Legislators receive between 200 and 5,000 letters weekly, depending on the size of their districts and how much noise the issue has generated. This makes it impossible for them to read and respond to every letter. Staff members in each of fine count the letters, tally the number of pros and cons for each issue, draft responses and report back at day's end.

"Even on the biggest issues, a single letter can stand out when it shows thoughtful consideration of the subject," said one Capitol Hill staffer "I would pull that letter out of the pile and give it right to the senator."

Most legislator s agree that personalized letters carry much more weight than form letters--whether typed or handwritten. "An individual letter, written by a constituent in his or her own words, is more impressive than the thousands of computer-generated postcards that Senate offices receive every week," said David Carle, a member of Sen. Paul Simon's (D-Ill.) staff.

Although no barometer exists to measure the political pressure each letter exerts, politicians say that each person who rakes the one and effort to write a thoughtful, coherent letter represents from three to eight additional constituents. Liz Frenkel, Sierra Club legislative coordinator in Oregon, goes further in her estimate, saying that every letter or phone call equals eight to 10 more members in the community Paula Carrell, the Sierra Club's state program director, has had plenty of opportunities to gauge legislators reactions to pressure from constituents. In a classic example of how powerful letter-writing can be, Carrell tells of a California legislator who sponsored a damaging river bill.

"After he received 20 or so letters from constituents about the bill, he told me he was surprised to find 'any of you people in my district,'" Carrell said. He seemed particularly unnerved when he realized that many of these 'environmentalist' constituents were people of some note in his district, such as PTA members and a well-known physician. He changed his vote on the bill, at some cost to his relationship with its author."

The key to successful letter-writing is that letters be personal, inoffensive and come from many "new" voices in the district. legislators won't pay as much attention to familiar letter writers who write a letter on the same issue every week. A continual stream of new names is important," said one congressional aide.

For activists, this means rallying friends and neighbors to put their pens to paper. Lobbyists also suggest listing associations and memberships in addition to the Sierra Club to discourage "unfriendly" legislators from pigeon-holing environmentalists as "tree-huggers" or members of "the backpack brigade."

To reinforce your message, broadcast it to your community in a letter to the editor of your local paper. Members do read their local papers, especially the op-ed page--it's a standard practice around the hill," said Sherry Ettleson, Sen. Paul Wellstone's (D-Minn.) legislative assistant.

Face to Face

Elden Hughes: "Recognize the power of your voice."

It's difficult to turn down someone who asks directly for a favor, especially when it is framed in a non-combative, persuasive manlier. This is why lobbyists--and legislators--agree that a personal meeting is highly effective.

"Face-to-face is always the best," said Arthur. "If you can get an appointment with the congressperson, it's harder for hull or her to say 'no' to your face."

Legislators suggest that the likelihood of securing a meeting often depends on the number of constituents represented in that meeting, and how great the opposition is to your position. "The key is to have a small group representing many people or groups," said Ettleson. "The more groups behind you, the more likely you are to get to see him or her."

More often than not, you'll end up meeting with a staff member, which has almost as much impact as meeting directly with your representative because legislators generally consult with their staff before making a decision.

As in all efforts intended to garner attention, a bit of creativity and spirit goes a long way. Elden Hughes, tireless environmental lobbyist and a hero of the California Desert Protection Act campaign, tells of his "tortoise visits" to Capitol Hill with wife Patty: "When we were in Washington, Patty stopped by Sen. Barbara Mikulski's (D-Md.) of fine with a box of baby tortoises and met with her chief of staff. Later that day, Sen. Mikulski called then-Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) and told him she had just been called on by five tortoises from California and she wanted to co-sponsor his desert bill."

They also visited Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) who was, according to Hughes, left speechless: "He walked out to the reception office and there were 14 at his staff on the floor playing with five tortoises. I lie looked, said nothing, shook his head and returned to his office. One week later he became a co-sponsor "

Effective, yes. Easy, no. Often a constituent has neither the time, resources nor inclination to cultivate a personal relationship And time-pressed citizens may not have the chance to craft and send letters within the small window of opportunity that is open when an issue is nearing a vote. Alternative methods such as phone calls, e-mail messages and faxes cam convey your message quickly, but are they effective?


The Phone Call

Of all the methods, the phone call is the quickest and easiest, and politician. count it as a close second to the letter. Sen. Nancy Kassenbaum's (R-Kan.) of fire reports that they receive anywhere from 10 calls a minute on days when there is a vote, to two or three calls per day when there is no legislative activity.

To ensure that your call is being registered, ask for a reply. "Always keep them accountable," said Ettleson. "If you write or call, ask for a written response."

Calls are tallied and reported to legislators just like letters. The White House, which receives between 2,000 and 2,500 calls a day, routes these numbers to the president daily. Often, if a comment is particularly striking, it's written down and passed on to the president," said the White House comments line director.

Gauging the overall effectiveness of calls is difficult. But the more calls on an issue, the greater the impact. "If' 20 calls come into the district of fire in a day on the same issue, this information is quickly relayed to the legislator," said Ettleson.


The newest lobbying method to hit Congress, e-mail is still in its early stages and not all congressional members can receive it. Those who can say its use is growing. "Once e-mail becomes more widely accepted and available, then its popularity will increase," said Doug Booth, press secretary for Rep. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

The White House, which is set up to receive e-mail encourages voters to use it. Currently, for every e-mail sent, a standard form message is sent back by an "autoresponder" set up in the system. Stephen Horn, presidential e-mail director, said that to date, the president has received over 600,000 pieces of e-mail, which are read and tallied by correspondence staff and sent to the president weekly with a few samples pulled out.

Many lobbyists remain ambivalent, however. I'd rate e-mail at the bottom of the list of the best ways to lobby," said Frenkel. "Not everyone has it and your message doesn't always have impact since the system doesn't list your address. Legislators don't know if you're a constituent or not, unless you make a point of including your address." Frenkel believes that within the next couple of years cyberspace communication will play a greater role.


The Fax

The fax, like the phone call, is a quick way to convey messages," said Booth, "particularly if an issue is being debated on the floor that day and you want to get your opinion noted before a vote is cast."

However, most legislators agree that the fax shouldn't be used in place of more traditional methods, such as a letter, because fax machines are used mostly for inter-office correspondence and tend to become overloaded. One Capitol Hill staffer said that, overall, faxes aren't given much credence and are usually thrown away because their volume makes them difficult to deal with. The increase in technological communication wears out the staff," said Mike Horak, press secretary to Sen. Kassenbaum.

But both Horak and Booth agreed that depending on the staff member, some faxes may be added to the letter pile.

Overwhelmingly, legislative staff and volunteer lobbyists say no matter what methods are used, the efforts of one person can make a difference. Whether it's at a town meeting, or through letters and phone calls," said Horak, "the best approach is to become educated on an issue and frame it in a personal context." Elden Hughes, volunteer lobbyist and desert tortoise champion, agrees. But, he Says, it all starts with the individual. Recognize the power of your voice. Be persistent, keep your messages consistent and don't be afraid to ask for help. You will be heard."

Up to Top