Why should Catholics care about government, politics and public policy? As Christians, we are commanded to love our neighbor. We can do this in many big and small ways. Once significant way of responding is to help shape the laws and structures that affect people’s everyday lives. Creating and orderly, just and loving society is a vital part of our response to God’s commandment to love our neighbors.
While it is tempting to think that government is off in the distance “doing things” to taxpayers, our society is better served if we remember that government is but a tool for achieving the common good. The people are the government. Government structures exist to serve people; citizens do not exist to serve government bureaucracies.
The government, however, cannot serve the people unless individuals take responsibility for sharing ideas about how to achieve the common good. It is only through sharing ideas that we can define what is best for our society.
Next to voting, the most important way citizens can participate in government is to communicate their wishes to legislators.
In order to communicate most effectively with your legislators, it is necessary to know the issue under consideration. Many issues are very complex, both for legislators and the average citizen. If you want to influence the legislator, you must study the issues. An aware citizen can:
- Listen to news broadcasts on radio and television;
- Read the daily newspaper, church publications, and news magazines;
- Study resource materials on the subject from neighborhood or church libraries;
- Discuss the subject with family, neighbors, and friends;
- Request information from any organization or group which has taken a stand on the issue;
- Give serious thought to the moral or ethical implications of the issue.
Once you feel comfortable discussing the issue, it’s time to communicate your views.
Don’t be intimidated!
Legislators are people just like you. Like you, they have a job to do, and they won’t be doing it long if they are inaccessible or unreceptive to citizens. Like you, they don’t know everything. Most often they will appreciate information that helps them realize how laws and programs affect the people they represent. Remember, you are as much a help to them as they are to you.
The best way to express an opinion to any public official, especially a legislator, is a personal visit. Your legislator is really interested in YOU. After meeting you, s/he will have a personal feeling about your concerns.
One of the best places to visit personally with legislators is in their home district offices. They have a little more time to talk there, and they can relate to you as a constituent.
A visit to the legislator’s office in the state Capitol can also be effective, if it is properly arranged. Be sure to write or call in advance for an appointment. If you want to discuss a particular piece of legislation or bill, mention it when making the appointment. Above all, know your facts and your position.
On the day of the visit:
- Be on time for the appointment, but be patient if your legislator encounters unexpected delays because of official business.
- Do not be upset if you are asked to meet with a staff aide. This is quite common because legislators are often unexpectedly delayed in legislative meetings or on the floor of the legislature.
- Be as specific as possible in your discussion.
- Be brief and concise, but cover all points which concern you. Offer to leave useful data, charts, or information or to send more information if it will be helpful.
- When possible, use personal examples. Talk about your own experiences and how the issue affects you.
- Give your legislator a chance to talk. Respect the legislator’s knowledge of the issue and respond to any questions s/he may ask.
- If your legislator disagrees with you, listen carefully for reasons, but be firm in your opinion. As a constituent, you are important to your legislator. State your issue confidently and reasonably.
- Do not threaten or be sarcastic! Even if a legislator can’t vote for your side of the current issue, s/he may be helpful to you on another occasion.
- If your legislator agrees, thank him or her and offer to provide support or information if they need it as the issue progresses.
- Before you leave, thank your legislator for the time given to your visit.
Most citizens do not realize how influential letters to legislators can be. Most legislators keep a mail file on every bill and review it carefully when the bill comes to the floor for a vote. A legislator may read portions of a well-written letter aloud during legislative committee hearings or floor debate. Many times just a few persuasive letters are the determining factor in how a legislator votes.
Here are a few suggestions on how to make your letter most effective:
- Identify your topic immediately. If you are writing about a specific bill, refer to it by number and subject.
- Be specific in stating your position, either for or against. Make clear why you are advocating a particular position so that, if amendments are proposed, the legislator will know their effect on your position. If possible, back your position with reliable facts and figures.
- Be clear and concise but never curt.
- Be reasonable and do not make threats.
- Be yourself. Do not try to sound like a “professional.” Use your own stationery and your own words. Copying material or form letters prepared by someone else is usually ineffective.
- If possible, use a personal example of how and why the issue concerns you.
- Ask for an answer. To get a personal response, ask for the legislator’s opinion.
- Be positive. Avoid criticism. If possible, express appreciation to your legislator for some recent action, vote, or public speech made on behalf of your cause.
- Consider the factor of timing. Try to communicate your position while a bill is in committee or just before a decisive vote is to be taken.
- Always sign your name legibly.
- Be sure to include your return address and phone number in your letter, not just on the envelope. Envelopes sometimes get thrown away before the letter is answered.
- Check the spelling of your legislator’s name and address him/her properly.
Thank your legislator if s/he pleases you with a vote on an issue. Everybody appreciates a complimentary letter, and your legislator will know that you are aware of his/her voting record. On the other hand, if a vote is contrary to your position, don’t hesitate to let him or her know in a polite letter.
There is no way a citizen can be sure a letter will result in the action requested, but it is well worth the effort for citizens with serious opinions to write.
You may prefer to place a telephone call to your legislator, especially if you have met previously through a personal visit. A phone call is particularly effective if time is short or you want to discuss a matter and exchange viewpoints. There are several pointers to be remembered:
- Telephone calls to legislators should always be made during normal business hours.
- When talking to the legislator, as with all communications, be sure to identify yourself, particularly if you are a constituent whom the legislator represents.
- State your business clearly and concisely and, of course, be courteous. It is helpful to have some notes jotted down so you will be sure to include everything you wish to discuss.
- Listen carefully to what your legislator has to say or ask.
- Thank the legislator for the time and consideration given you.
It is helpful to follow up a telephone call with a written letter confirming the call.
Other Communication Methods
If time is of the essence, letters can also be sent to legislators via FAX or electronic mail. Be certain to provide all contact information so that the source of information might be verified.