Monday, June 23, 2008

Washington 101 (Part 1)

I am constantly feeling like I want to DO something whenever I read about parental rights being threatened, vaccines harming children, or normal Americans being marginalized for questioning the untested vaccine schedule. Having a 14-month-old in the house, however, largely hinders me from doing much. Congressmen and lobbyists go on about their inside-the-beltway, day-to-day politics, and little moms from small-town America can easily be ignored.

But ... that doesn't mean we don't speak up anyway. A few years working in a lobbying organization in DC taught me a small bit, and I wanted to post a few more useful links.

1) Finding your officials is probably the easiest and most important first step. Once you know their names, you're well on your way. allows you to type in your zip code and instantly see who your federal and state officials are. (There's a box on the left side of the page, and at the top right inside the navigation bar.)

2) Now that you have your representatives' names, just write down this phone number and keep it handy: Capitol Switchboard: (202) 224-3121. When your call is answered, just say to the operator, "Senator _____'s office, please," or "Could you please direct me to Representative _______?" or something to that effect.

Sometimes this number gets very busy and it's hard to get through. You can try this number in addition: (202) 225-3121, and you can always use the or the Web sites to find additional phone numbers and email addresses for your legislators.

... Now, this may be elementary to most, but just as a refresher, every American has two Senators (no matter where you live in your state, your Senators are the same -- there are 2 for each of the 50 states) and one Representative in the House (different depending on your geographic location). All in all there are 535 members of Congress - 100 in the Senate and 435 in the House.

Tips on calling your Representatives/Senators:

- Don't be afraid to pick up the phone on the spur of the moment to voice your opinion. Your legislators work for you. I preach to myself when I say we need to make our voices heard. It literally could take only one or two minutes to call and speak three sentences while you're washing your dishes.

- The phone is probably being answered by a college-aged intern or an entry-level staff member (though sometimes the higher-ranked staff answer). This person may sound completely disinterested, but don't let that hinder you from saying all you want to say. Even if they only write down part of your comments or merely make a hash mark next to a topic showing that their boss got a call, your call is better than no call, and if asked for details later, they may recall some of what you said. Remember to be polite!

- This person also may not be able to explain the Rep./Senator's positions or answer "why" questions, such as, "So why did your boss vote in favor of such-and-such?" You can try, but don't be surprised if they keep mum.

- If you have lots of questions, ask if you can speak with the L.A. (legislative assistant) who works on (whatever issue). You might even be able to find a name before calling by going to the representative's Web site and looking up staff and issues. Some members provide this information. If your issue is vaccine safety, this topic may fall under something broader like "Health and Human Services." If you aren't sure, you can always just ask the person on the phone. ("Which L.A. can I speak to regarding ______?")

In-person visits can sometimes be scheduled in your vicinity when your federal Representative/Senator is home for a recess (such as in August). Or, you can call the local office and ask about meeting with staff regarding an issue anytime. Be sure to have clear talking points and handouts ready if you decide to pursue this route.

Next "Washington 101": How to Research Congressional Bills

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