Question: I would like to get Congress to change a law. I’ve written my representative and so have friends and relatives. All we get back are form letters. What else can we do? Edwardsburg, MI
Answer: You are doing all an American citizen can do — only a Member of Congress has the authority to introduce a bill. Write, phone, or visit all three of your Members of Congress and ask them to take legislative action.
Be sure to contact all three Members with the same request: your Representative as well as both of your two Senators. To contact or identify your Senators, visit the U.S. Senate website. For contact information on House Members, visit the U.S. House website.
Your best opportunity is to communicate directly and in person to your elected representatives. Most Members of Congress have open office hours when they visit their home states and districts, which is almost every weekend. Most Members also hold regular town meetings open to all constituents. Call all your Members and find out when their next home visit is scheduled and make an appointment. Take a delegation with you! Or attend one of the town meetings and state your idea aloud.
Keep in mind that Members of Congress are under no obligation to act on every legislative request they receive. Yes, their constituents are the people who hire them and can fire them. But they are able to exercise their own judgment when on the job. They decide what gets priority among the many competing petitions for legislative action they receive from various citizens. They can only be held directly accountable in the next election for the actions they take or fail to take.
The growth of the Internet and advocacy websites present another outlet for political involvement. There are several books out describing the grassroots trend of using the Internet for political activity. You can find descriptions on Amazon.com and see “look inside,” to read excerpts. Two suggestions:
If all your individual efforts to get Congress to focus on your issue of concern fail, you might consider joining a national organization which best reflects your point of view. In a representative democracy like ours, there is strength in numbers. There are thousands of advocacy groups in this country. Ask your local reference librarian to help you identify organizations relevant to your topic of interest, or do some extensive searching on the Internet for like-minded organizations.
Finally, there is an additional, more formal, method to gain the attention of the Congress. Under the Constitution in the Bill of Rights (Amendment 1), all U.S. citizens are given the right to petition the government directly. The House of Representatives accepts all petitions addressed to it, signed with full name and address, and sent in care of the Clerk of the House, U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, D.C. 20515. Petitions can come from a single individual or a group of individuals, or from private organizations.
The Senate accepts petitions for action addressed to it, signed with full name and address, and sent in care of the President of the Senate, United States Senate, Washington, D.C. 20510.
Both chambers refer petitions received from private citizens or organizations to the appropriate congressional committee in their chamber which has jurisdiction over the subject matter addressed in the petition. However, petitions are considered “advisory,” and enjoy no special status for action. Committees of the Congress take them under advisement, and may or may not choose to act on them.