The Power of the Phone Call

When headlines leave you reeling and furious, there’s so much more you can do than sharing the latest news on Facebook. Pick up the phone and sharpen your pencils. Your voice matters, if you know how to use it.  

by Lauren Landau

Photo by Sam Carpenter via flickr

Photo by Sam Carpenter via flickr

A meme is currently making the rounds on social media. It consists of two screengrabs from an episode of NBC’s 30 Rock. Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) says, “What a year, huh?” Boss Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) responds, “Lemon, it’s February.” 

Just a few short weeks after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, the bad news keeps pouring in. Of course, that depends on one’s personal views. But if you’re into basic human decency and promoting equality, it’s been a heck of a half-month. Equality is under attack, but you can fight back. Power is just a phone call away. 

Back in October, JW interviewed women in politics for JWI’s #VoteLikeAGirl campaign. Maryland House of Delegates Member Shelly Hettleman emphasized the importance of calling and writing your representatives. 

“I can say unequivocally they make a difference,” she said. “I know as an elected official, I read my mail. I know, having worked for other elected officials, that they read mail or at least have their staff tell them what their constituents are saying about issues. Same thing with phone calls. People pay attention to their constituents.”

Recent events highlighted the efficacy of phone calls, when Senator Lisa Murkowski (AK) said on the Senate floor that the flood of phone calls to her office affected her decision to vote against Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education.  

“I have heard from thousands — truly thousands — of Alaskans who shared their concerns about Mrs. DeVos as secretary of education,” Murkowski said. “They've contacted me by phone, by email, in person, and their concerns center, as mine do, on Mrs. DeVos's lack of experience with public education and the lack of knowledge that she portrayed in her confirmation hearing.”

Like Murkowski, Senator Susan Collins (ME) also said she plans on voting “nay” as a result of constituent outreach. Both senators also cited their own careful considerations about the nomination, but it’s clear their decision had a lot to do with the thousands of every-day people who called to express their concerns.

JWI Manager of Advocacy Initiatives Ilana Flemming says members of Congress want to hear from their constituents and know what voters think.  That’s why every congressional office tracks communication from constituents, counting every phone call, email, letter, and postcard. Members receive a report documenting the numbers and how contact for different opinions stacks up. 

You've got this!

If a phone call sounds intimidating, keep in mind that the Member of Congress will not be on the other end of the line. You are speaking to a staff member or office intern whose job it is to answer constituent phone calls. Here are some tips for a successful, impactful, and low-stress call.

  1. Identify yourself as a constituent. Be prepared to provide your zip code, name, address, or whatever information they request. 
  2. Know your ask. What is the issue or bill you’re calling about? 
  3. Be succinct! Say what you’re calling about and your position on the issue or what you want the member to do. 
  4. When in doubt, fill in the blanks and follow this sample script: “Hi, I’m [NAME] and I’m a constituent of [MEMBER OF CONGRESS]. I’m calling to ask the [CONGRESSMAN/CONGRESSWOMAN/SENATOR] to support/oppose [ISSUE/NAME OF BILL]. [Optional – personalize your message] As a [TEACHER, JEW, WOMAN, DOCTOR, RESIDENT OF THE DISTRICT], this is important to me because [1-SENTENCE EXPLANATION]. I hope the [CONGRESSMAN/CONGRESSWOMAN/SENATOR] will cosponsor/vote for/vote against this bill. Thank you!”

Example: “Hi, I’m Jane Smith and I’m a constituent of Senator Jane Doe. I’m calling to ask the senator to support S. 100, the All Dogs Go to Heaven Act. As a dog owner, it is important to me that all dogs go to heaven. I hope the senator will vote for this bill. Thank you!”

“They’re always tracking, but obviously the volume of communication matters,” Flemming says. “If they’re getting a thousand phone calls on a specific issue, that’s going to make an impact. That’s going to be brought to the member’s attention.” 

Of course, when that happens, phone lines may get jammed. Flemming says phone calls are the best way to reach out to members of Congress, but there are many other ways to get in touch. A contact form is publically available on each member’s official website. 

And Flemming says those emails are read by human people, not sent directly into the inbox abyss. “Everything you send is read by somebody and logged,” she says. “You can send a letter. You can send a postcard. You can send a fax. You can even reach out on social media.”

A 2015 survey by the Congressional Management Foundation (CMF) found that, “More than three-quarters (76%) of the respondents ‘agree’ or ‘strongly agree’ with the statement ‘social media enabled us to have more meaningful interactions with constituents,’ and nearly as many (70%) agreed that ‘social media have made Members/Senators more accountable to constituents.’” 

When it comes to social media, Flemming offers some tricks for getting your message across effectively. 

“The thing to keep in mind about interacting with Congress on social media is that it’s more effective to comment on a member’s post than to tag them in your own,” she says. “Also, identify yourself as a constituent in your comment.”

And as with phone calls, numbers matter. Ask your friends to add their voices! “Thirty or fewer similar comments on a social media post are enough to get an office's attention, but they need to be posted quickly or they may not be seen,” the CMF report found.  

Finally, sometimes you will find yourself impassioned by an issue that requires action from a representative outside of your district. “Members of Congress represent their constituents, so your input is less impactful if you are not a constituent,” Flemming says.

But, that doesn’t mean your hands are tied. You can post on social media, tell your friends in that district to reach out to their members of Congress, or go visit your neighbors in the nearest swing district. “You might not call that member of Congress yourself,” Flemming says, “but you can volunteer and do outreach to encourage voters in that district to reach out to their elected officials.”

Flemming also suggests thanking members of Congress any time they do something you approve of. 

“Most members only hear from constituents when they’re doing something constituents don’t like,” she says. “So they always appreciate knowing that their constituents are happy with what they’re doing. A phone call, a letter, an email, or posting on their social media channels are all good ways to express your appreciation!”

So, who are you calling on your lunch break?