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Contacting Congress

American Whitewater will occasionally send our staff or volunteers down to the Hill to educate our Congressional Representatives on legislative actions affecting river access, conservation, or enjoyment. Here are the tools that we have developed for our volunteer's interactions with their Congressional representatives. The simplest rule in communicating with Congress is to keep things simple and concise.

AMERICAN WHITEWATER'S GUIDE TO WRITING POLITICAL ACTION LETTERS

By Jason Robertson

Contents: When should I write?
Who should I write to?
What should I write?
How should I format my letter?
A sample letter
How do I find my political representatives’ addresses?

When should I write?

Your elected representatives make the laws and agency staffs interpret them, while administrative officials act to interpret the laws as passed. By writing to your Congressional representative you are asking for their help with the crafting of law, or clarifying the intentions of laws.

You should write your elected representatives when you have a specific problem AND a specific solution or action in mind. Legislators are unlikely to introduce a legislative solution to address a local river management or access issue. However, your elected representative will often bring their considerable influence to bear by bringing attention to an issue at a much higher level in an agency. Imagine your response if a senator calls you and says he has a problem he wants you to look into – that’s the strength a legislator can bring to an issue. This is enhanced further if the legislator happens to be on an appropriations committee with oversight authority for your agency and, by extension, your paycheck.

You should also write to your elected representatives when specific legislation has been introduced or circulated that would affect you or your interests. In this case, be sure to mention the number of the draft legislation, called the “Bill”, and the number of any laws or “Acts” that are affected.

Who should I write to?

When you write to your representative, you are asking for the rep to take an action. When you are trying to decide whom to write to, your elected representatives are supposed to be accountable to you regardless of whether you have donated to their campaigns or voted for them; however, if you did donate to their election campaign, then it never hurts to remind them of this fact when you are asking for their help.

The House of Representatives tends to be more receptive to local issues, because they have fewer constituents than senators; however, they also tend to have smaller staffs and their voice can be lost unless they are on a committee focusing on your issue.

The attention of a Senator can bring very quick action from an agency; however, it is often harder to get an audience with the senator or the attention of the senator’s staff.

If it’s worth writing to one of your elected congressional reps, then it is probably worth writing to all of them.

What should I write?

  • Appear credible, by appearing moderate. The more extreme you are, the less likely you will receive a considered response from your legislator.
  • Keep it brief; one page letters are most effective.
  • Keep it simple; limit the letter to one issue.
  • Spell your representative’s name correctly, and include the date.
  • State why the issue is important to you, your families, and friends.
  • Ask your representative to update you on the actions they take on your behalf.
  • Consider sending your letter by registered or certified mail, to draw attention to your message and require the recipient to provide a signature and a receipt.
  • Write or address the letter by hand. Hand written letters receive priority, followed by typed letters, followed by faxes. Emailed letters tend to receive the least attention.

How should I format my letter?

Your full name
Address
City, State, Zip Code
DATE

Title, Name of Representative
Address
City, State, Zip Code

Dear Senator/Congressman ………. ,

In the first paragraph, identify yourself as a whitewater boater, mention your affiliation with American Whitewater, and provide a brief description of the problem for which you are seeking help.

In the second paragraph, make a specific request for help or action.

In the third paragraph, provide additional details about the problem, and why your representative should help you. Emphasize the public interest behind your request, and cite relevant laws or regulations supporting your position.

Sincerely,
{Your signature}

Your full name (printed)
Address

CC: American Whitewater

A sample letter

Joe Boater
42 Whitewater St
Wherever, USA 01234
March 15, 2002

The Honorable Joe Smith
US House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515

Dear Congressman Smith,

I am a resident and registered voter in your district and a member of American Whitewater, a national, non-profit boater’s organization dedicated to conserving and restoring America’s whitewater resources and enhancing opportunities to enjoy them safely. I am seeking help in opening access upstream of Highway 28 on the Wild and Scenic Chattooga River. Currently, the Forest Service is modifying the river management plan and floating regulations on the Wild and Scenic corridor under “Amendment #14”; however the Agency has failed to acknowledge written comments from the boating community asking for the ban to be lifted as part of the planning modifications.

I request your assistance in helping the large population of boaters in the Southeast that are affected by the Forest Service’s actions. Please contact the Forest Service and ask them to review American Whitewater’s proposal to open the headwaters and include it as an option for public comment and review in the Environmental Assessment for Amendment #14.

When the Chattooga was first proposed for Wild and Scenic designation in 1971, the government’s study documents observed that the headwaters sections above Highway 28 were most accessible and enjoyable from the river itself. Boating use would occur on natural flows about 30 days each winter and is unlikely to conflict with any other uses or result in any environmental degradation. The ban on boating on the Chattooga is completely inconsistent with all other river management plans on designated wild and scenic rivers.

Please respond soon to inform me of the actions you are taking to ensure the Forest Service will provide the public with a river management alternative that would allow boating above Highway 28.

Sincerely,

Joe Boater

Joe Boater
Address

CC: Jason Robertson, American Whitewater

How do I find my political representatives’ addresses?

HOUSE: The address for any US House of Representatives member is:

The Honorable (name of Congressional Representative)
US House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515

SENATE: The address for any US Senator is:

The Honorable (name of Senator)
US Senate
Washington, DC 20510

For Additional Information on contacting your elected representatives, including their local offices, check the Senate Website and House Website.

AMERICAN WHITEWATER'S GUIDE TO CONGRESSIONAL BRIEFING VISITS

By Jason Robertson, Access Director

If you intend to meet with your elected representatives, be timely, be patient, be prepared, and expect to end the meeting abruptly.

Your representatives and their staff have numerous people and actions vying for their attention. If you only get 15 minutes, don’t worry, that’s a normal meeting length. If the meeting lasts more than 30 minutes, consider yourself lucky, that’s longer than usual.

  • Dress conservatively and respectfully. A tie is not essential, but a tasteful shirt with a collar is expected.
  • Be flexible. Your meeting may be unexpectedly delayed, moved up, or cancelled at the last minute. Don’t take this personally. Be positive, you may wind up having to present your points while walking with the Senator on the way to a vote, or you may bump into the Senator on the metro.
  • Expect mistakes in scheduling, early departures, interruptions, and even bells ringing.
  • Know the name of the person you are expecting to meet with and what their title is.
  • Expect to meet with a staffer, instead of the Senator or Member. If you want to meet with the representative directly, consider donating to the election fund, offering to host or attend a fundraiser for the representative, or try to schedule a meeting when they are on recess and back in their district.
  • Know why you are having the meeting and what you want from the representatives.
  • Plan to meet for 15 minutes. Rehearse your important point(s).
  • Make the important point(s) clearly and succinctly.
  • Be honest, candid and relaxed. Avoid being defensive or argumentative. Monitor your tension levels, if you find yourself backing into the corner, then breath deeply, uncross your arms, take a moment to think, and return to your basic point.
  • Recall that your #1 interest may not be your elected representative’s #1 interest.
  • Expect a neutral reaction; favorable responses include promises to “look into the issue” or “consider the proposal”. Consider an offer to take any action a success.
  • If you receive a negative response, don’t become argumentative.
  • Thank the person you are meeting with for their time and the chance to express your interest.
  • If you agree to follow up with additional materials or answers to questions, then be sure to follow up with a suitable response.