Tips for contacting your representatives in Congress
Beginning with each new Congress, your AVMA staff is charged with finding ways of working within coalition groups and with members of Congress to influence the legislative process. The various efforts could include striving to introduce legislation that would be helpful, search for ways to block legislation that would be harmful, and seeking to shape the final form of imperfect legislation that would have an effect on issues of importance to the veterinary profession.
One of the most important tools this profession has in the arsenal of influence with the U.S. Congress is you, the constituent veterinarian. It is more important than ever that elected officials hear from the "docs back home." A lot depends on what your personal relationship is with that elected official and with their key staff. Your elected officials need to hear from you, or they may not understand what effect the decisions they make will have on legislation that impacts you and your profession.
As a general rule, grassroots communications should be concise, cover only one issue, and state the facts. You should identify yourself as a constituent and use that identifiable address on the envelope, letterhead, fax, and e-mail. If applicable to the communication, also state that you are writing on behalf of your organization so the message has a double effect by showing that you support your professional organization's legislative agenda.
If there is a bill title and bill number, and you know what they are, reference these in the communication so that you can "close the deal" by asking the representative to specifically take an action on the issue—for example, to co-sponsor a piece of legislation, or to vote "yes" or to vote "no" on a specific bill or amendment either in committee or on the floor. Once a piece of legislation or a bill is introduced, it has a number. Usually the higher the number, the later in the session the bill was introduced. An "S." before the number denotes a bill in the Senate, and an "H.R." denotes a bill in the House of Representatives. If the bill has a companion bill in the other house, you can reference that in your communication.
Be courteous and complimentary. You should always show the respect the office deserves when communicating with your representative. Use "The Honorable" before the legislator's full name on the envelope and the inside address. Follow up on your request for action on a legislative issue and be sure to thank the representative and their staff whenever you can.
You ask, why bother? What can one letter do to help? If your elected officials do not hear from you, how can they know what will help or hurt you? As a constituent, you don't have to be an expert on the details of the legislation. If technical questions arise, tell them you will get back to them or ask someone from the AVMA staff to get back to them with those answers. The most effective message for you to deliver is a personal one—tell a story; cite specifics about how, whatever the legislation is, it will impact your profession, your patients, your clients, or your business. Use your practice letterhead, if appropriate.
It is preferable to type the letter, but handwritten letters, if legible, are perfectly acceptable and may be more effective with many elected officials than a glitzy construction. Do not forget to ask your lawmaker to do something. Specifically ask, for example: "Senator, I hope you will consider becoming a co-sponsor of S. 741, the Minor Use Minor Species (MUMS) legislation," or "Congressman, please consider the facts and reconsider your position of opposition on H.R. 660, as affordable health care is a number one issue for me in my business."
The main thing to remember about getting started is to just do it. Whether you pick up the phone, write a letter, or send a fax or e-mail, communication is the key. Face-to-face meetings are effective, but are not always possible. However you choose to communicate with your elected official and their staff, identify yourself by an address that will establish you as someone who works, lives, or votes in the elected official's state or congressional district. Otherwise, a written or electronic communication will likely be destroyed/deleted unanswered.
Now that the five AVMA legislative initiatives have been identified (see story, page 1329), you have some work to do that will help to a great extent. You can write, call, fax, or e-mail your two senators and your congressperson in the House of Representatives on any or all of the five legislative priorities.
For information on your member of Congress, log on to www.avma.org/grd, go to the Government Action Center, and into the AVMA Member Center. If you type in your zip code, your member can easily be located. Biographies, mailing addresses, and other contact information are readily available for your representative and other federal legislators as well. Issue briefs on the five priority issues and other information should be available on the Government Action Center Web site in the near future. If you have questions on the issues, contact AVMA headquarters at (800) 248-2862 or the Governmental Relations Division at (800) 321-1473.