By John A Overholt
Congress is very important to all citizens but it is even more important to retirees and survivors who are dependent upon retirement annuities for their living. The amount of our annuities, our Medicare and other benefits, veteran or widow pensions, social security and railroad retirements benefits, are all dependents on legislation that must be approved by Congress. The inequities in our retirement system can be corrected only by congressional action. This shows how important it is for us to get congress interested in our problems.
Congress is one of the three main branches of Government - the Legislative Branch. The other are the Executive Branch, headed by the President, and the Judicial Branch, consisting of our Supreme Court and other Federal Courts.
Congress consists of two "Houses," the Senate and the House of Representatives, and members of both Houses are termed Congressmen, although we usually address a member of Senate and "Senator" and a member of the House of Representatives and "Congressman." The Senate has two members from each State, regardless of population, while the number of members in the House of Representatives varies according to population, with each State having at least one member. States with more than one Representative in the House of Representatives are usually divided into Districts, with one Congressman from each District. This explains who each of us who live in States has two Senators but only one Congressman in the House of Representatives.
All Congressman, including Senators and members of the Houses of Representatives, are elected by the voters in their States and Districts. Senators are elected for six-year terms, with one-third of the terms expiring every two years, and members of the House of Representatives are elected for two year terms. Congressional elections are held in November of each even-numbered year.
In this way congress represents the people. Every Member of Congress owes his office to the voters in his State and District, and has to face the voters periodically to stay in office. This means, in effect, that your Senators, and your Congressman, are your representatives in Congress. You helped to elect them and your vote may be necessary to re-elect them in the future, and so they are very much interested in learning what you want them to do for you in Congress.
A letter to a Congressman should be something like a personal visit. It should be cordial, it should state its message clearly, and it should be brief. It should be personal, not mechanical. Form letters are better than no letter at all but not much better because many identical letters indicate that the writers are not personally interested enough to compose their own letters.
Letters to your Senators should be addressed to him or her as Honorable (name), United States Senator at Senate Office building, Washington, D.C., and should start with "Dear Senator (name):' Letters to your Congressman should be addressed to him or her as Honorable (name), House of Representatives, House Office building, Washington, D.C., and should start with "Dear Congressman (name:)".
It is always nice in such letters to express thanks for benefits approved by Congress. Praise of past efforts is never a handicap in seeking new favors.
In asking for something new, it would help if you could tell just what the new benefit would do for you, or for some other person you know or know about. Also, if you know how many people in your locality would be benefited, add that is the letter. Each Congressman wants to do the most he can for the people he or she represents, and if they can please a lot of voters by supporting something you want, they will be eager to do so. Of course, if you don't know enough about what a proposal will do, but only know that it is supported by our Association, you can tell him that, but is will not have quite the force that it would have if you could tell him or her exactly what it means to you. Don't write a long letter --- make it brief and to the point.
Be careful to avoid any offensive statements in writing to your Congressman, even if he does not support you in your request. Remember that he must represent all of his people, and he is honest in decisions. Although he or she may not support you today, they may be able to support you some other time, so don't be offensive. The old adage that molasses catches more flies than vinegar is still true.
In short, let your letter represent you. Be sincere. Be cordial. Organize your thoughts and present them in a logical, clear way. Tell him or her you appreciate things he or she has done for you in the past. Don't nag him or her or criticize them for doing something you don't like (You'll have a chance to vote for someone else some day). Put a smile and a handshake in your letters and don't make them too long.
* This information is parts of a presentation made during a workshop on Federal Retirement. Even through it was directed toward retirement issues, it is also applicable on what we need to consider in writing Congressmen on many other issues.