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I'm American. And I recently wrote my representative and senators to express my opinion about bills on which they might vote soon. I got no response at all from two of these letters, and from the third I received a letter summarizing the politician's own views (on the same issues) with no reference to my views.

I guess that at some level my purpose in writing is to influence the politicians' perceptions of their constituencies. I would hope that some clerk (or aid or whatever) at least skimmed the letter and made a hashmark on a table, trying to keep track of whether there's a general consensus or wide variety of opinion, or passion or indifference, or something along these lines. Now I wonder if they simply have an automated system for identifying the subject matter of correspondence and sending their own positions in response.

Do we have any way of knowing whether letters to our representatives and senators are read by actual people and whether these letters ever have any influence on the positions that these politicians take?

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    I suppose that a congressman or a senator receives thousands of letters, so they cannot conceivably read and answer all of them. They have the advisors responsible for reading and bringing them to attention or taking action when necessary - e.g., when it concerns human rights abuses, legal violations, unjustly delayed visa applications, etc. Simply discussing political opinions is likely not their priority - the best chance is asking a direct question in a rally (and even those are often pre-screened). Jul 26 at 8:19
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    "Do we have any way of knowing whether letters to our congressmen and senators are read by actual people..." What do you think? If this would be the case, I guess people would very much surprised by how much is written every day and how little is read.
    – Trilarion
    Jul 26 at 8:40
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    If Robert Caro's first volume of Lyndon Johnson's biography is accurate, it's the congressperson's Secretary that makes the decision on the nature of a response to a letter and his/her staff that do the work. Then the congressperson signs the format letter prepared by his Secretary's staff that either claims credit for fixing it or offloads blame to some other party/agency for not doing so.
    – Trunk
    Jul 26 at 13:30
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    I had a role in providing resources to a system that was built in the U.S. Senate where positions stated in letters were recorded in a database. This was done for at least two reasons - to keep track of how issues were trending and, more valuable to the Senators, to create targeted correspondence for campaigns. The targeted correspondence could indicate agreement with your position or, perhaps, mention other positions with which you might not disagree.
    – Dave D
    Jul 27 at 1:09

3 Answers 3

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Letters About Political Issues

The vast majority of letters (about pending issues) written to politicians are read by staff members of the politician (who often code similar responses and reply with a form response, sometimes approved by the politician or a more senior staff member).

Exceptional letters are frequently brought to the member's attention, while boilerplate letters are usually seen by a member only once even if hundreds are received although the number of letter of each type received are typically tallied.

Do we have any way of knowing . . . whether these letters ever have any influence on the positions that these politicians take?

Politicians use the letters received in a few respects. They gauge how "hot" an issue is to somebody. They are notable when they don't match the politician's expectations about preferences in the district. And, rare, one off personal letters about lower profile issues can provided insights to politicians that may be useful in gaining information about obscure issue of which the politician might otherwise not have been aware.

If an issue is hot, a good politician makes statements about it and votes on it with more attention and care in most cases rather than being flip and making off the cuff arguments that are ill considered.

But, letters rarely cause a politician to change a position on an issue about which the politician has already made a strong ideological commitment unless they are wildly unexpected in volume or in pro/con mix on an issue.

Constituent Service

Letters about personal problems in dealings with the government from a constituent of the politician are quickly referred to different staffers who specialize in sorting out bureaucratic tangles that constituents get into, a process called "constituent service."

All of these letters are read, and the politician's constituent service staff (at the state level, some legislatures consolidate most constituent service for the entire legislature, for an entire house of the legislature, or for a political party) addresses issues where the staffer agrees that there is a legitimate grievance.

Sometimes an inquiry will be made with a call from staff or a formal letter signed by the politician, other times the politician will call or there will be a formal letter from multiple politicians who are all experiencing the same problem.

Agencies, in turn, have staff members who are dedicated to responding to these inquiries, which in federal agency vernacular (as my wife who worked briefly in a federal agency related) is called "a Congressional."

If the agency is unresponsive, the issue is sometimes escalated by putting a freeze on some legislative action, like a budget request or a Presidential appointment to the agency, until the issue is addressed, or the issue may be escalated to a superior of the agency causing the problem.

(Most of this answer is based upon personal experience from working in and around legislators in Congress and in state legislatures.)

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    Excellent answer. Out of curiosity, are some congress folk more known to be more diligent than others? There's always the old chestnut about the politician who knows all her constituents but that almost implies that there's also the pol who doesn't bother with his. Is that a big competitive advantage at the Fed congress level? Jul 26 at 5:46
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    To the "rarely change a position" point I would add that in my own experience working on campaigns letters from constituents approaching issues from the politician's own side of the ideological divide are much more likely to have an impact. Politicians already know that millions of people are on the other side of the divide from them on any issue, and being reminded of that is unlikely to move them because it doesn't add any new information. A challenge from their own side is more likely to make them nervous.
    – tbrookside
    Jul 26 at 11:44
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica: At least in terms of constituent services there can be a vast difference in "diligence". When I was halfway through my naturalization process, the USCIS (uscis.gov) messed up processing. Trying to get my congressman involved resulted in a 2 week delay and a letter summarizing the points that I had made in my initial contact. I got no reply at all from one senator. But, with the other, I had several friendly chats with a staffer who eventually phoned me saying "You should be hearing from them tomorrow" - and I did
    – Flydog57
    Jul 26 at 14:40
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    Your answer seems reasonable. My letter to D.C. (and my question to the Stack Exchange) was about pending legislation, not constituent services. I was actually asking the government to make no change to the current law. But the response that I mentioned (on the same issue but without reference to my request) makes me wonder: did I just increase the "hotness" of the issue, promoting the legislation that I meant to discourage? (They would be foolish to work this way, but that does not convince me that they do not work this way.)
    – Chaim
    Jul 26 at 19:53
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    @eps Which means that, within 5 minutes of it becoming an issue, it will be picked up by the culture warriors. Jul 27 at 8:18
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I can state from personal experience that staffers do in fact read incoming mail. Certainly regarding one-off circumstances. I can fully believe that hot-button issue messages are simply tallied rather than read in detail.

I was having some problems (lasting more than a year) with a federal agency simply not updating paperwork regarding my case. Within three days of finally getting fed up and sending my senator a message about the problems they mysteriously resolved. It would not, however, surprise me if the senator did not personally read my message, that part was never made clear in the brief communications I had with that office.

Constituent service is a major track to getting re-elected (it certainly worked well enough to get my vote the next election cycle despite my otherwise not particularly liking the person).

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  • Um, are you saying you think that your letter to the senator actually was the reason why that federal agency suddenly updated your paperwork, all within just three days? That seems very implausible to me. At least one day until the letter arrives at the offices, a couple of days (if not weeks) in the queue until it's read, another week until there's a time slot for a meeting in which the matter is discussed, and then the way back through the bureaucracy... Much more likely that the paperwork just happened to be finished at almost the same time as you sent the letter, by coincidence. Jul 26 at 10:39
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    @leftaroundabout: Or the letter was read by a staffer, who in preparation called the agency to get their view. And the agency decided it was easier to resolve the issue than explain it to a politician.
    – MSalters
    Jul 26 at 12:06
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    Good point about constituent service letters.
    – ohwilleke
    Jul 26 at 12:43
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    In my case the letter was sent by official site web form,so really no delivery time. Jul 26 at 14:47
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    @leftaroundabout You'd be amazed at the things that happen quickly when you start a call with "Hello, I'm from Sen. Soandso's office. The Senator is wondering what's going on with Mr. Suchandsuch's paperwork..."
    – Machavity
    Jul 27 at 17:56
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This comic from an ex-mailroom staffer for a Senator indicates that yes, they do read mail from constituents: https://www.lawsandsausagescomic.com/comic/401

From the author:

A lot of people ask whether it's worth it to write to your representative. The answer is yes

They then go on to detail their experience over a depiction of them reading mail.

Comic 402 gives tips on how to improve your chances of actually reaching your representative and getting more than a generic response. In short:

  1. Be civil
  2. Handwritten letter over e-mail or form letter
  3. Don't vent, mention specific policy
  4. Have other people write as well
  5. Write to editors of publications they're likely to read
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