Dead Letter

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National Journal
Peter Bell and Sarah Mimms
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Peter Bell Sarah Mimms
Aug. 1, 2014, 1 a.m.

Even in this elec­tron­ic age, many ad­vocacy groups still ad­vise sup­port­ers to send hand-writ­ten­letters to mem­bers of Con­gress. “It really makes an im­pact, es­pe­cially in a time when we’re bur­ied in email,” says one or­gan­iz­a­tion on its web­site. “A hand­writ­ten let­ter gives a per­son­al touch and shows ef­fort on the part of the writer,” ad­vises an­oth­er.

But does the ex­tra work (and cost) really make a dif­fer­ence? In both 2005 and 2010, the non­profit, non­par­tis­an Con­gres­sion­al Man­age­ment Found­a­tion asked seni­or man­agers and mail staffers on the Hill about the in­flu­ence of snail mail versus email. In 2005, in an­swer to the ques­tion, “If your Mem­ber/Sen­at­or has not already ar­rived at a firm de­cision on an is­sue, how much in­flu­ence might the fol­low­ing ad­vocacy strategies dir­ec­ted to the Wash­ing­ton of­fice have on his/her de­cision?” 44 per­cent of re­spond­ents said in­di­vidu­al­ized postal let­ters had a lot of in­flu­ence, and 52 per­cent said they had some; 34 per­cent said in­di­vidu­al­ized emails had a lot of in­flu­ence, while 60 per­cent said they had some. In oth­er words, the two types of cor­res­pond­ence were al­most equally likely to have some im­pact, but the postal let­ters were far more likely to have a lot of juice with le­gis­lat­ors. Form let­ters and form emails were both deemed to have sig­ni­fic­antly less power than in­di­vidu­al­ized notes of either kind.

(Peter Bell)By 2010, CMF found, the per­ceived in­flu­ence of both types of cor­res­pond­ence had waned, but the dis­par­ity between the two had also leveled out: 20 per­cent of man­agers and mail staffers who were asked the same ques­tion in 2005 said that in­di­vidu­al­ized postal let­ters had a lot of in­flu­ence, and 70 per­cent said they had some, while 19 per­cent said in­di­vidu­al­ized email mes­sages had a lot of in­flu­ence, and 69 per­cent said they had some. Both kinds of cor­res­pond­ence were still rated as far more in­flu­en­tial than form let­ters or form emails, which staffers viewed as com­par­able to each oth­er.

Bey­ond the in­creased use and ac­cept­ance of email in gen­er­al, there are a num­ber of reas­ons the in­flu­ence of email seems to have reached par­ity with postal mail on the Hill. First, let­ters “don’t really even come in any­more,” ex­plains one House Demo­crat­ic staffer. In the wake of the an­thrax at­tacks on Cap­it­ol Hill in 2001, the en­tire mail sys­tem was re­vamped. The con­tent of all pa­per mail sent to Con­gress is now entered in­to com­puters at an out­side fa­cil­ity. The ac­tu­al let­ters are no longer de­livered. So a let­ter a con­stitu­ent hand­writes on mono­grammed sta­tion­ery ar­rives elec­tron­ic­ally, just as an email would. “They all come in the same way,” the staffer says.

Second, if writ­ing a tra­di­tion­al let­ter is meant to sig­nal the sender’s level of en­gage­ment with or com­mit­ment to an is­sue, con­gres­sion­al of­fices now have oth­er ways to as­sess those things, staffers say. For ex­ample, of­fices have cor­res­pond­ence-man­age­ment soft­ware that can dis­till an email’s es­sen­tial mes­sage, or tell a form let­ter from a per­son­al let­ter based on how much it var­ies from oth­er missives of its kind.

In the­ory, this al­lows of­fices to weight per­son­al mes­sages, no mat­ter how they are sent, more heav­ily than form mes­sages. But do they? “I’d like to think so, but by the time they get to the mem­ber, you say that there were 45 people op­pos­ing im­mig­ra­tion. It didn’t mat­ter if they were form let­ters,” says one House Re­pub­lic­an aide. “So I think it mat­ters more to us at the [staff] level. But in real­ity, by the time it gets to [the mem­ber], I think that in­tent is lost.”

The aide adds that, gen­er­ally speak­ing, a flood of cor­res­pond­ence, of whatever type, will put an is­sue on the boss’s radar — provided that the mes­sages are com­ing from con­stitu­ents. (“Be­cause, I mean if we get tons of form let­ters from out of the dis­trict, we don’t really con­cern ourselves with that as much,” the aide says.)

An­oth­er House Demo­crat­ic staffer agrees, say­ing batches of form let­ters of­ten come in “at the same time as we’re get­ting a bunch of phone calls or a bunch of per­son­al stuff,” so they don’t even both­er to dis­tin­guish between them. They know what they need to know: that whatever people are con­tact­ing the of­fice about is ob­vi­ously “a big is­sue.”

There is at least one way to make that per­son­al let­ter count, however: Get it past the gate­keep­ers. Let­ters that are “par­tic­u­larly poignant” are “def­in­itely set aside” for the boss, says the first House Demo­crat­ic staffer. And those can have a dif­fer­ent kind of im­pact on de­cision-mak­ing. Let­ters that tell a per­son­al story “cer­tainly stick with him,” the staffer says. 

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