The newsletter of AMERICAN TRAILS -- SPRING 1998

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How to make elected officials hear and listen

By Donald Butler

This is the $64,000 question with no easy answer. With the advent of the electronic age, we are now able to bombard our (and everyone else's) representatives with a never ending stream of e-mails. But are these effective? Do they get our message? Probably not.

You should try to limit e-mails to the Members of Congress to those who are directly involved in legislation, unless there is a vote pending. These would be the representatives from your own districts and states, and committee members including the chairman. Because our government works by committee, these members are the ones that do most of the work on specific issues, so they are the ones that need to be hearing from you.

In addition, try to find any representatives who may be sympathetic to your cause and include them too. If you do know a vote is coming then it is time to e-mail them all. But be specific about what bill you are talking about and the exact manner in which you want them to vote and why. There are cases that representatives have voted one way or the other based on one or two correspondences.

But limiting yourself to e-mail is the easy way out and most of the time the easy way isn't necessarily the best way. Any communication with congressman works best if you e-mail it, mail it, fax it, and call about it, and then follow up with the office. Be persistent without being annoying (easier said than done). It takes more time and effort to do this but that effort and time is what makes the impact on the office. The rule of thumb is the harder it is to create a communication the harder it is to ignore it.

Avoid preprinted forms and letters like the plague; after they get two they don't even register them any more. These things can do more harm than good because the Congressional offices often will chalk these types of correspondences as the work of a few and not a true measure of what the voters want.

Make sure that if you are coordinating an effort on some topic (someone better be coordinating if you hope to be successful), that each and every correspondence refers back to that topic so that it is obvious that all of the correspondences are related. Don't just assume that the congressional staffs are smart enough to see the correlation between these correspondences. It is extremely important that you be clear and concise. The staffers reviewing these communications have a limited amount of time to devote to each item. If you don't get their attention quickly&emdash; like 3 or 4 seconds&emdash; you lose. Try to be original and remember that they get a ton of correspondences every day. Most of the same things that apply to creating a good resume apply here. Don't use bad language, not even hell or damn. Don't rant and rave. Don't lie. Be prepared to respond to questions that may be directed to you regarding something you wrote or said.

Whatever you do don't threaten them with bodily harm. The Secret Service really doesn't find this humorous.

Donald Butler is Vice President of the Tarheel Trailblazers, a mountain bike club in Charlotte NC. The group has developed trail systems on local county parks, and has also been involved in greenway development and park planning. Contact Donald at:

April 1998 -- AMERICAN TRAILS --