Grassroots Advocacy 101
Making Your Voice Heard in Congress and the White House
Table of Contents
The United States Congress Consists of Two Distinct Groups of Elected Officials: The Senate and the House of Representatives
There are 435 members in the House of Representatives and 100 in the US Senate. You are represented by one Congressperson (elected to the House of Representatives from your district) and two Senators (elected to the Senate from your state).
According to the US Constitution, these individuals are expected to represent you in Congress. However, to do that, they must hear from you. Establishing and developing an ongoing, effective relationship with your elected officials helps to educate them regarding your issues and ensures that their votes aren't cast without your input.
The US Congress Handles Their Workload Through a System of Congressional Committees
Our complicated federal legislative process requires a Congressional Committee system to handle the workload. HIV/AIDS-related funding and legislation are handled in a number of these committees, including Appropriations; Labor and Human Resources; Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs; Judiciary; and Budget.
The most important work is done at the committee and subcommittee levels. Members negotiate the final details of new legislation and/or funding before a bill emerges for a floor vote. While it is still generally most effective for you to contact and make requests of your own elected officials, there may be times that it is strategic to ask your representative to contact a specific committee member.
Getting to Know Your Elected Officials
First Things First
Know who your elected representatives are. There are several ways you can identify your elected officials.
Secondly, Do Your Homework
It pays off in the future. Be aware of your elected official's political party, committee assignments, political points of view and, if possible, their voting record on your issues. Other facts can be helpful:
Communicating with Congress
Effective communication with Congress can make the difference between program funding increases and cuts or between laws that protect you or someone you care about and laws that create more difficulty or discrimination. You have valuable information that can help your legislator make the policy decisions that will impact your life. There are a number of ways you can communicate your position.
Communicating with your legislators and their staff is one way to possibly impact the course of legislation early in the process. There are many points in the process where you can make a telephone call, write a letter (via mail, e-mail or fax) or visit with your legislator and/or staff. How you communicate is your choice, but each method has advantages and disadvantages. However, it is important to keep in mind that one contact will not make a relationship. You need to be consistent in your communication and may need to contact your representative several times and in different ways during the course of a legislative session.
You don't have to be an expert on an issue to express an opinion -- you will not be grilled on your knowledge of an issue. The most important thing that you bring is your own personal story about how a piece of legislation or a budget issue would affect you or those you care about. It is important to stress how the issue that you are supporting or fighting would specifically affect your community, organization or district. If you have any facts on who might be served or hurt, what organizations might benefit or be harmed or any other economic effects in your area, let your representative know. Remember, the legislator should care about the effects of policy on his or her home district.
If you know who your opposition is on the legislation and what arguments they are using, it is helpful to counter with your own perspective. For example, if you are arguing against cuts in Medicaid while fiscally conservative groups are arguing the program is a drain on resources, you might want to talk about the cost savings that occurs if people have access to treatment that keeps them out of the hospital.
The information on the following pages outlines a few of Project Inform's tips on communicating with federal elected officials.
Public hearings are one way that legislators take the "pulse" of the public on specific issues. The hearings are called by a committee investigating a legislative issue. If you want to testify, call the committee holding the hearing and ask to be placed on the witness list. You can also ask your representatives to help you in this process.
Follow up with a letter confirming your request to appear. Since the spots are limited, it is best to be strategic about who speaks and what issues they raise. Once you have testified, you may be called back on issues that you can provide information on. Keep in mind:
While effective, telephone calls are generally best when time constraints make letters or personal visits impossible. Calls are usually logged on a chart in the legislators' office and can have an effect on how he or she votes. Keep in mind the following:
If you are writing to your Congressperson, remember that personal letters are the most effective. They are regarded with much more importance than postcards or form letters.
Whenever possible, write letters on your own stationery and mention any appropriate organizational or professional affiliations. Handwritten letters are appropriate and considered extremely effective as they indicate a strong personal connection to the issue.
Keep the following in mind:
Finally, be sure to include your name, address and phone number in your correspondence to ensure that you receive a reply from your representatives. Once you have received a reply, you can also send a response. This will indicate your concern and allow you to reiterate your opinion. If your representative agrees with you, it allows you to thank them and let them know that you will be following the issue. If he or she disagrees, a response allows you to put forward more reasons why your approach is reasonable.
Sending e-mails to your representatives is still fairly new. Most federal legislators are online, and e-mail is clearly a quick and efficient way to communicate with elected officials. However, not all offices check e-mail daily, so you should contact your representatives' office and ask if e-mail is a preferred method of communication.
As with all communication, it is important to be personal when e-mailing your representatives. Because it is easier to e-mail a quick note than to handwrite a personal letter, it is possible that e-mails -- like form letters and postcards -- might not be weighed very heavily. Make sure you discuss only one issue at a time and always give your name and mailing address.
A personal visit with your representatives is one of the most effective ways to develop a relationship with your legislators. Don't forget to include your legislators' staff in your visit, specifically those who will be likely to work on your issues. Don't be bashful -- personal visits are easy to set up.
Keep the following in mind:
If you are unable to get an appointment with the Congressperson, get the location's address and drop by of his or her office. If the Senator or Representative is not able to meet with you in person, meet with a member of his or her staff instead. Leave appropriate materials and follow up your visit with a letter of thanks to the Representative and/or his or her staff.
Several times a year, your representatives will be visiting their home districts. This is an ideal time to talk to them, as they usually come home to get feedback from constituents. If you are on your representative's mailing list, you should be notified when these visits will occur.
You will usually have better luck if you are going in as a coalition of groups with a unified message. Project Inform can assist you in seeking out appropriate groups to contact when setting up your visit.
If you are unable to get an appointment, your representative's local office can tell you when he or she will be in town and whether they are holding public meetings. Sometimes the meetings are issue specific and sometimes they are general meetings.
You can bring your questions and/or requests to the appropriate meetings and air them publicly. This serves the additional purpose of helping to educate others about your issues.
Finally, when you're communicating with federal officials, don't forget the White House. The President also represents you.
You can write, e-mail or call the White House and voice your opinions and concerns on specific topics. And as with your Congressional representatives, your communication is logged and counted.
It is important to be strategic when contacting federal administrative officials. Bombarding their offices with calls and letters could actually backfire. However, on issues that are receiving major public attention, it is important these officials hear from those most affected.
Join the Treatment Action Network
Since the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, grassroots advocacy has been the heart of many political victories. People most impacted by HIV/AIDS have called, written, e-mailed and met with their elected officials to demand an adequate response by the federal government. Those personal stories are one of the most powerful and effective ways to influence those we elect to represent us. While we have made many strides over the years, there is still much work to be done. You can make a difference by joining over 2,000 Treatment Action Network members and becoming an influential HIV/AIDS advocate!
What Is the Treatment Action Network?
TAN is the largest national grassroots network of individuals advocating on HIV/AIDS research, treatment and healthcare issues. TAN members write, e-mail and/or call their Members of Congress, the President and federal administrative officials about HIV/AIDS legislation and funding issues. Sometimes TAN members are asked to contact pharmaceutical companies to ask for faster access to promising treatments or lower drug prices.
In the past year, TAN members have advocated for increased funding of HIV/AIDS programs; reauthorization of the Ryan White CARE Act, the Early Treatment for HIV Act, the Patients' Bill of Rights; and strong medical privacy regulations.
What Do TAN Members Receive?
As a TAN member you will receive regular e-mails with updates on federal legislative activity and Action Alerts on timely issues that need your attention. TAN Alerts provide substantial background information on the issue and sample letters to help you craft your message (phone, e-mail or handwritten) to your elected officials. TAN members also receive contact information for their federal representatives and tips for communicating effectively with their elected officials.
If you do not have e-mail access, we will e-mail Alerts and updates to you about 4-6 times a year, along with contact information for your representatives and our Grassroots Advocacy 101 manual.
What Does It Cost to Be a TAN Member?
Other than a few stamps and occasional long-distance phone calls, the only cost of participating in this important network is a few minutes every month communicating with your representatives about issues that affect you every day.
How Do You Sign Up?
YES! Sign me up to be a part of the Treatment Action Network!
This article was provided by Project Inform. Visit Project Inform's website to find out more about their activities, publications and services.