Inauguration day is here, and what a ride it’s been. No matter your party affiliation, this election may have inspired you to get more involved in the political process. And why shouldn’t you? Like it or not, the federal government directly impacts each of our lives through programs as diverse as education to veterans’ benefits.
Federal laws dictate what Medicare covers, how much Social Security pays us, and what we pay in taxes. US states, on average, obtain a third of their revenue (for state services) from the federal government. The incoming congress, and the president-elect already have suggested big changes to the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare) and to Medicare — programs that impact one in five Americans (for more information, click here and here). In addition, in the coming years, our elected officials also will decide on funding levels for the National Family Caregiver Support Program, the national Elder Justice Initiative (elder abuse prevention), Alzheimer’s research, senior employment assistance, and senior housing.
How does an average American influence national policy? Voting for our candidates of choice is one way. The framers of our constitution, however, also gave us opportunities to influence lawmakers in between elections. They created a government where “we the people” can advocate at any time with our elected officials to create or change laws that affect us.
How You Fit Into the Lawmaking Process
Before considering how to advocate, it’s first necessary to have a basic understanding of our legislative process, and where you might fit in. Generally speaking, lawmaking starts at Congress, and ends at the President. Any senator or representative, from either government “chamber” (i.e. the senate or the House of Representatives), may draft legislation (a.k.a. a “bill”).
In drafting a bill, legislators may use their own ideas, and/or ideas they receive from others…like us. The bill’s author (its “sponsor”) introduces the bill, which then goes to committee where lawmakers refine the bill’s language, often incorporating feedback from others…like us. After committee, the members of the chamber (where the bill was introduced) vote on the bill. In deciding how to vote, they may be persuaded by others…like us. If approved, the bill goes to the other chamber, where the process is repeated. When both chambers agree on the bill’s language, they send it to the President, who may approve or veto it, often after reflecting on input from others…like us.
How we advocate with (or persuade) our elected officials is similar to the way we persuade anyone else. For example, imagine you want to convince a friend to donate to a charity you support. You might invite your friend to meet, or you might write a letter. In your conversation, you likely will introduce the charity and the problem it hopes to solve; and explain to your friend who the problem impacts, what the charity is doing to solve the problem, and how your friend’s donation can help. To make your case more convincing, you might describe how the charity’s work relates to your friend’s hobbies or values, mention mutual friends who already have donated, or share a personal story about how the charity’s work impacts you. If your friend donates (or even if he/she doesn’t), you might send a “thank you” note for your friend’s time.
Advocating with our legislators is not much different, although the means by which we connect might be. Because we may not personally know our elected officials, we might first participate in a town hall meeting with an official, write a letter to the local newspaper to get their attention, schedule a meeting through their staff, or first meet with their staff. Because the government intensely examines incoming mail (to check for dangerous substances) — a process that may take up to a month — we also may choose to phone or to send an email, rather than mailing a letter.
Whichever method you choose to contact your elected officials, here are some guidelines to consider:
- Be brief. Your lawmakers and their staff rarely have more than 30 minutes to devote to individuals. At a town hall meeting, you may have less than 10 minutes to get to your point; and in a letter or email, you may want to limit yourself to 100-150 words.
- Be organized. Because your time is brief, you will want to deliver your message efficiently. State the problem or issue. If you’re contacting your lawmaker about a particular bill, indicate the bill’s title or number (see Logistics). Explain specifically how the problem/issue affects you, your legislator, and/or your legislator’s constituents. If possible, provide evidence from independent sources, and show how the problem/issue relates to your elected official’s values, voting record, or campaign promises. Most importantly, identify what you want your lawmaker to do: be it drafting legislation, revising language in a bill, or voting on a bill.
- Be courteous. Like you, your elected officials and their staff want to make a difference; and like you, they may have time conflicts, competing responsibilities, or bad days.
- Leave something behind. If you meet with your elected official or your official’s staff, consider leaving literature about the issue and the position you want your legislator to take. You might leave your contact information, and offer to answer future questions. Whether you wrote to your lawmaker, or met with them in person, send a thank you note for their time; be sure to include a reminder of the issue, and what you want your lawmaker to do.
If you’re short on time — or just seek an easier way to advocate — consider signing up for action alerts from an organization that fights for issues important to you. Typically these organizations will notify you about issues on which you can act, instruct you on how to contact relevant decision-makers, and provide sample language for your use.
Organizations that advocate on issues of concern to older adults include AARP, the National Council on Aging, the Alzheimer’s Association, the Center for Medicare Advocacy, LeadingAge, and the National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care.
Find contact information for your senators on this US Senate’s webpage; and for your representatives, on this webpage of the US House of Representatives. To contact the President, visit the White House’s website. To find bill titles and numbers, along with text and summaries, visit the website of the Library of Congress.
For More Information
For more information on our legislative process, see the US House of Representatives website. Or, for easy-to-read information, see the House of Representative’s Kids’ page, which includes progressively more detailed descriptions for grade schoolers through high school. For more information on how the annual federal budget is determined, visit the National Priorities Project website. For more advice on advocacy, see resources from the Gerontological Society of America, the National Council on Aging, and the National Psoriasis Foundation.
By Leland Kiang
Leland Kiang, LICSW is manager of Iona’s Information & Referral Help Line, whose staff answers questions about senior services throughout the DC metro area. Leland also has written articles for BIFOCAL, Unite Virginia, and the National Resource Center on LGBT Aging.