2017 Guide to Government
Did you know that in any given legislative year 9-10,000 bills are introduced in the U.S. Congress? Although only a very small percentage (approximately 6 percent) actually becomes law, these laws govern every aspect of our lives, from communication to recreation, from transportation to education and much more. Laws governing issues such as telecommunications, designation of national parks, gasoline taxes and educational loans and scholarships are among the hundreds of decisions that our legislators make on our behalf every day.
But how do they know what we want or what is best for their local community? They depend on their constituents (the voters in their state or district) to let them know how [proposed] federal policy affects their local community. Knowing and being responsive to the needs and concerns of the voters is, in fact, their top priority; it is what got them elected and will help get them re-elected. In some instances legislators making policy decisions are not fully experienced in certain areas. Legislators, therefore, rely heavily on the expressed views of their constituents and information provided by experts – such as you. Through constituent letters, phone calls, and face-to-face meetings, legislators learn what’s important to the “people back home.” As the legendary Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill often said, “all politics is local.”
In fact, knowing what’s really important to you, what your needs are, what’s happening in your local area or across the state, is what really counts on Capitol Hill. Despite the cynicism surrounding politicians and politics, most Members of Congress go to work every day trying to make a difference for his/her district or state and the nation.
It may surprise you to know that they not only rely heavily on what the voters think about an issue; in many cases they reach out to constituents who have expertise or knowledge in particular area and ask them for their help. Has that ever happened to you? If so, that’s likely because you have been actively involved with grassroots. They know they can reach out to you when they need some assistance with a particular piece of legislation or even in the development of a proposed new policy initiative. In short, members of Congress and their staff count on your letters and phone calls, your direct involvement, to help them know if they are “on the right track.”
Effective Communication is key
A new administration has just taken office and it’s a good time to brush up on one of your most fundamental and important rights: contacting elected officials.
Each year the Aiken Chamber of Commerce organizes and publishes a guide to help people communicate with elected officials. The Guide to Government is on the following two pages of this publication. It is an excellent resource to keep all year. An electronic copy is available on the Chamber’s website at aikenchamber. net as well.
Elected officials are accountable to all citizens under their care — no matter who they vote for, what their political beliefs are or whether they’re even allowed to vote.
Their job is to make sure that the interests of all people are accounted for when developing legislation, making or confirming political appointees and deciding on priorities for their offices — so get heard!
You can use the Guide to Government found here to locate your federal, state and local officials and get their contact information.
The first step is determining who you should contact. When you’re reaching out to government officials, you should focus on your own elected officials.
The president and vice-president are accountable to everyone in the United States, but members of Congress from outside your district or state actually don’t have to respond to you. Their staffers generally won’t count your comments in tallies of input from the public, but as a courtesy, they may pass them on to your own representative. You are welcome to drop a congressperson outside of your district an appreciative line, but if you seek action, focus on your district’s representatives.
How you will contact your representative is the next question. If you can, walk into a district or main office. It’s a fantastic way to get the attention of staffers, and you can often have a very productive, interesting conversation.
If that’s not an option, call. Start with the district or main office closest to you.
When it comes to federal officials, district offices are often more familiar with the issues specific to your area, and the staffers typically come from your community. Calling is highly effective and weighted more seriously than letters or email.
Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social media outlets don’t count, unless specifically indicated otherwise — as, for example, when people are invited to submit questions via a government website.
If you’re not a big phone person, make a script for yourself. You only have to stay on the phone for a few minutes, long enough to say:
My name is ____. I live in ____ and am a constituent of Senator/Congressperson/ Mayor _____. I am concerned about _____ and would like to register my support for/opposition to/ propose that you ____.
The staffer should thank you for your time, and they may ask for your address to confirm where you live.
Public meetings — including regularly scheduled events like city council meetings, community forums sponsored by officials and hearings — are another fantastic way to reach officials and network with your community.
Some meetings have an open comment period where constituents can bring up anything they like, while others focus on specific issues and you are welcome to add your comments. Your statements go on record and are considered by the people holding the meeting. If you can’t make it, submit a letter to the agency or officials holding the meeting and ask for it to be included in the formal testimony.
Finally, you must determine what it is you wish to communicate. Always contact an elected official with something concrete. Instead of saying “I am concerned about infrastructure,” pick a specific issue, like a proposed policy or bill to bring up. The more concrete you are, the better the staffer will be able to serve you.
Below are tips for visiting and contacting your elected officials. Remember, it is your right to be heard.
Communicating through letters and emails
- Be Original - Consider writing your own original correspondence. While many organizations can provide you a pre-written letter or postcard that you simply sign, many legislators still consider a thoughtful, original letter from a constituent worth 1000 of the pre-written letters. Feel free to use a pre-written letter as a base and expand on it with your own words.
- Stay Brief - The maximum length of a letter/email should be one page. Keep in mind that the letter will most likely be read by a legislative aid and summarized for the legislator, so a brief letter is best.
- State Who You Are and What You are Writing About - Identify yourself as a constituent and why you are writing in the first paragraph. This will keep your letter brief. However, refrain from using lines like “As a citizen and a taxpayer...” Also, if you know the bill by name or bill number, state it in the first paragraph.
- Personalize Your Letter/Email - If the legislation you are writing about will affect you personally, tell the legislator about it. Write a brief personal story about what the legislation will/will not do for you and/or your community.
- Personalize Your Relationship - The more you can personalize your relationship with the legislator, the stronger your letter/email will be. If you voted for the legislator, worked on his/her campaign, or donated money to the legislator or their party, say so. If you ever met the legislator, briefly mention this in your letter.
- Three Points - In keeping your correspondence short, consider making no more than three main points. Flush out your three strongest points and stick with them.
- Be Respectful - The easiest way to not have your letter read is to be disrespectful. “Dear Idiot” will probably send your letter to the garbage, however taking a firm position on an issue is fine. Do not use profanity. Even if your legislator is not the person you voted for, remember to be respectful.
- Include Your Address in Your Signature, Even in Email - Legislators are busy people and you should also never demand a response. However some legislators will take the time to write back, but they cannot if you do not include your address. Including your address also affirms the fact that you are a constituent.
- Proper Address - Below are the ways to address your letters:
- Dear President:
- Dear Vice President:
- Dear Senator (Name):
- Dear Representative (Name):
- Follow up - After you have contacted your elected official, follow up on what they did. If he/she voted the way you wanted, consider contacting them to thank him/her. If your legislator did not vote the way you wanted, consider contacting them and respectfully express your disappointment. In any follow-up letter/email, mention the fact that you wrote him/her before the vote was taken.
Visiting South Carolina General Assembly Members
When in session, legislators are busy with committee meetings and the daily Assembly votes. It is essential to schedule a specific time in advance. It will generally be for a five- or ten-minute period. To increase your effectiveness during the meeting:
- Make an appointment. Use the phone numbers in this publication on page 4 and 5 to contact an office. Allow enough time to accommodate busy schedules.
- Take Time for Advance Planning. Be prepared to present your views in a concise form and state what you hope to achieve at the conclusion of the meeting. Consider leaving a prepared list of points that you have made behind for the legislator’s future reference.
- Be on Time and Be Flexible. It is not unusual for meetings to be delayed, interrupted or rescheduled. Allow enough time in your own schedule for such occurrences. Be willing to address your concerns with a staff person as a substitute measure.
- Be Responsive and Helpful. There are usually several points of view expressed on a particular issue. Be prepared to offer counter responses and to provide additional information as needed.
The Importance of One Vote
Compiled and written by Doug Storer, noted author and broadcaster
If you feel your vote won’t make a difference in an election, perhaps the following will convince you otherwise:
- In 1645, one vote gave Oliver Cromwell control of England.
- In 1649, one vote caused Charles 1 of England to be executed.
- In 1776, one vote gave America the English language instead of German.
- In 1845, one vote brought the State of Texas into the Union.
- In 1868, one vote saved President Andrew Johnson from impeachment.
- In 1876, one vote gave Rutherford B. Hayes the presidency of the United States.
- The official website to track federal legislation is at Congress.gov.
- State legislation can be tracked by visiting scstatehouse.gov online.
- The South Carolina Legislature is in session January – May.
- Aiken County Council meets the first and third Tuesdays from January through June. From July through November they meet on the third Tuesdays and in December they meet on the second Tuesday. The meetings start at 7:00 p.m. and are held at the Aiken County Government Center at 1930 University Parkway, Suite 3600, Aiken. Visit aikencountysc.gov for more information.
- Aiken City Council meetings are typically held at 7:00 P.M. on the second and fourth Mondays of each month, in the Council Chambers of the Aiken Municipal Building, at 214 Park Avenue S.W., Aiken. Visit cityofaikensc.gov for more information.
Grassroots... What’s the big deal?
Grassroots is the foundation for any successful advocacy initiative. It is the number one reason why legislators vote “for or against” pending or proposed bills. Thus, grassroots gives you an opportunity to help make a difference. So, the next time the Aiken Chamber asks you to write a letter, make a phone call or visit with your Senator or Representative on an issue of great importance to business, just say “yes.” Don’t be afraid of grass stains... join us!