As I approach the end of my year as a Congressional Science Fellow, I realize more than ever how important it is for scientists to participate in the policymaking process. As a “staffer” in the office of Congressman Rush Holt, I have met with several groups and constituents who have diverse interests in science policy and the funding of federal agencies and programs.
As scientists and as citizens, we can all benefit in many ways from being actively involved in the work done on Capitol Hill. Or we can sit passively, and wait to deal with the results of decisions that are made without our knowledge or input. Many people feel that once they vote, their interaction with the political and legislative process is done. In fact, it could be just the beginning.
Working with Congress can be interesting, and the process for becoming involved is simple. First, become aware of and familiar with the issues that interest you. Next, learn about any proposed legislation or actions that would promote your position on these issues. Finally, inform your Senator or Representative about the action you think is appropriate.
Many companies and academic institutions have government relations departments that could provide information on current legislative issues. Several Internet sites, including our own IFT web site (www.ift.org), provide issue-oriented stories and briefs on a variety of topics. Using these resources, one can become familiar with the issues and understand what, if any, legislative activity may be needed.
Another important resource is the THOMAS system, a service of the Library of Congress. THOMAS (thomas.loc.gov), named for Thomas Jefferson, uses the Internet to provide detailed, up-to-date legislative information to the general public.
Once you know what you want to communicate, the fun can really begin. Members of Congress receive communication from their constituents in a number of forms including phone calls, email messages, letters, and visits. What follows are a few suggestions to help make your efforts most productive.
You can find your Representative using your state and zip code at the following web site: www.house.gov/writerep. This site allows you to send e-mail directly to your Representative and provides a link to the Representative’s web page. To identify your Senators, use the U.S. Senate web page at www.senate.gov. Once you enter your state, you will find the names of your two Senators and links to their web pages.
If you choose to call a Member’s office, remember that a staff member, not the Member of Congress, often takes telephone calls. Ask to speak with the aide who handles the issue on which you wish to comment.
After identifying yourself, tell the aide you would like to leave a brief message, such as: “Please tell Senator/Representative (Name) that I support/oppose (S.___/H.R.___).” You will also want to state reasons for your support or opposition to the bill. Ask about your Senator’s or Representative’s position on the bill. You also may request a written response to your telephone call.
The letter is the most popular choice for communication with a congressional office, although e-mail is becoming increasingly popular. Generally, the same guidelines apply to both e-mail and letters to Congress.
Based on my experience, the most effective letters are those that are clear, courteous, and brief. The purpose for your letter should be stated at the beginning of the letter. If the letter pertains to specific legislation, it should be identified by bill number, e.g., House bill: H. R. ____, Senate bill: S.____.
Letters should address one issue and include examples supporting your position. If possible, keep your letter to one page and be sure to include your home address even if you contact the office through e-mail.
Another effective way to convey a message about a specific issue or legislative matter is to arrange a meeting with a Member of Congress or their staff. It may be helpful to meet with a key staff member who is familiar with your issue and share your thoughts with them.
Before you plan your congressional visit, understand what it is you want to achieve. Do you want specific legislation to pass? Is there a bill you do not want to be made into law? Is there a particular government program that you want to receive increased support or funding? Determine in advance which member or committee staff you need to meet with to achieve your purpose.
Make an appointment with the Member or their staff and be prompt, patient, prepared, and specific. Explain what it is you want the office to do and why, e.g., cosponsor legislation, vote against a bill, or write a letter to a committee chairman. Whenever possible, bring to the meeting information and materials supporting your position. It is helpful to share with the Member information and examples associated with a particular issue that clearly demonstrate the impact or benefits to their constituency.
As scientists, we often believe that once the facts are presented, the action or conclusion should be obvious. This is not always the case. Be prepared to answer questions and explain your position in more detail. Provide your contact information to the Member and staff, as you may be asked to send additional information. Consider sending a letter of thanks after the meeting, which is a good opportunity to review the points that were discussed.
As I mentioned in the February issue of Food Technology (p. 18), I have observed that the science community is generally a silent constituency with relatively low participation in the government process. Food scientists could be as influential as other concerned groups in matters affecting our industry if only we participated more actively in the legislative process.
Some may think their opinion is not eloquent or sophisticated enough to get the attention of Congress. I urge you to think differently. Our representatives need and desire our input to make informed decisions. Together, we can make a difference.
by JOAN R. ROTHENBERG
Congressional Science Fellow