Communicating with Decision Makers

Whether by mail, fax, or email, letter writing is an important way to communicate with elected officials. Mail is one of the primary ways elected officials get information on where their constituents stand on issues, and since only a small fraction of constituents take the time to write personal letters, each one carries a great deal of weight.

Here are some basics of letter writing:

  • State the purpose of your letter in the first sentence.
  • Address one key issue and stay on topic.
  • Request a specific action you would like the official to take on your behalf (i.e. cosponsor a specific bill, or vote for or against a piece of legislation when it comes before them).
  • Make it personal. Use your own words to tell why you care so much about a special place, or about wilderness in general.
  • Keep the letter short and to the point.
  • Ask for a response.
  • Always include your full name and home address so he or she knows you are a constituent.

*Since 2001, mail sent to Washington DC congressional offices takes much longer to reach its destination because of increased security on Capitol Hill. Assume your letter will take at least ten days or more to arrive. It may be a good idea to fax your letter in addition to mailing it. You may also consider mailing the letter to the nearest in-district office in your state.

Letters to Congress should be addressed in this format:

The Honorable (full name of Senator)
United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510
The Honorable (full name of Rep.)
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515

Phone Calls:

A phone call is often the quickest and easiest way to get your message to an elected official, especially if a vote or major decision is imminent. And, if you get your friends, neighbors, and others to make calls as well, you will create a greater impact. When you call your elected or agency officials it is important to make your point clearly and briefly. Often, the person you are trying to reach will be unavailable for one reason or another. Leave a detailed message with their staff. Include your full name and address to show that you are a constituent, and ask for a response from your elected official.

Working with the Media

The Opinion page is often the first page decision makers turn to when they open the daily newspaper. Letters to the Editor (LTEs) are a free, easy, and effective way to raise public awareness of an issue and call upon elected officials to take action.

Tips on Writing a Letter to the Editor:

Letters to the editor can be mailed, faxed or emailed. More and more, newspapers are receiving the bulk of their letters by email. Be sure to paste the letter into the body of an email. In the age of computer viruses and spam, few newspapers will open attachments.

  • Come up with a catchy or compelling first line that makes the editor (and hopefully the readers) want to continue reading your letter.
  • Stay on topic. Make one point and make it clearly.
  • Keep your letter brief — 200 words or less.  Anything more is asking for the recycling bin.
  • It helps if you can put your letter in context by responding to a recently published article. Mention the title and the date of the article in one of your first sentences.
  • Response letters should be submitted within a few days of the original article’s publication.
  • Be sincere. You don’t need to be an expert on the issue you are writing about, you are sharing your own thoughts and opinions on an issue you care about.
  • Be sure to include your full name, address, and a daytime phone number.
  • When your letter is printed, share your success with friends and family, and send a copy to SUWA while you’re at it. Printed letters to the editor make great grassroots outreach tools.

Resources for Grassroots Activists

U.S. House of Representatives: the congressional calendar, committee assignments, and a directory of representatives’ personal websites.

U.S. Senate: – Access the congressional calendar, committee assignments, and a directory of Senators’ personal websites.

Thomas Library of Congress: best source for legislative information on the internet, including current bills, lists of cosponsors, and the daily congressional record.

Open Secrets: – Find out who has contributed to your elected officials’ re-election campaigns and more.

League of Conservation Voters: – Review your Member of Congress’ “scorecard” on environmental votes and issues.