Previous blogs have touched on the ethics of writing other letters (recommendations, thank-you notes, lamentations, and letters to the editor, diaries, suicide notes and oxymorons). None of the ethical norms in those earlier blogs fit the ethics of writing to your congressperson. That’s because the recipients of letters to congresspersons are not family, friends, or foes. I am distinguishing here between letters to members of the US House of Representatives and members of the US Senate. The former are in a constant run for election because they are limited to two-year terms. Senators get six-year terms. This difference is important because representatives have no time for small matters, like letter reading or letter writing. Some Senators actually read the letters they get and dictate personal responses. They only have to run for office two years out of every six.
Letter writers should know five things. First, constituent letters are never opened by the recipients (they have staff for that). Second, they are bundled into stacks, piles, or drawers before the recipient knows they arrived. Third, they are carefully examined by others before getting to the floor of Congress to make sure they aren’t bombs or otherwise dangerous to whichever election campaign is underway when they hit the postal center deep inside and well below the halls of Congress. Fourth, they are read politically, not with love, happiness, or even affection—that comes later, if at all. Fifth, the initial readers are not elected to public office and therefore not moved to action by whatever favor or complaint might be in letters to congresspersons.
If, as I suggest, most letters to congresspersons are not actually read by the congressperson, what ethical norms apply? Remember that even though your letter will be read only by staff, the intended recipient will see a list of all letters sent and might direct a response written by staff but signed by the intended recipient. That raises the first ethical norm—be honest about what you write hoping the reply by staff will also be honest. You are not being ignored, just handled. That’s the main job of congressional staff, to handle things the congressperson cannot deal with due to volume and the never-ending upcoming election.
Besides honesty, all letters to congresspersons should be fact-based and seek an answer, response, or voice a concern about something political. If you write personal concerns, hopes for a better world or relief from oppression or plague, you are probably writing to the wrong person. Consider instead writing to local officials, friends, family, parsons, preachers, or the media. They react to personal issues and are not constantly running for office. That’s the second ethical norm—consider not writing to a congressperson unless the subject is political.
These two ethical norms for letters to congresspersons might sound unfair to congresspersons. Many of them genuinely feel obligated to represent their voters and help resolve constituent problems. But that is not their primary job. Their job is to vote on legislation favored by their political party. That’s not necessarily bad. It’s always been that way in a two-party world where the majority party decides and the minority waits its turn. What used to be in the public interest is now modulated by what is in the party’s best interest. That makes letter writing to congresspersons ethically problematic.
Letters to incumbents in an election year are even more problematic. They do not need letters; they need votes. Votes are secret. But letters are the currency with which votes are valued. Some letters fall into the samo-samo box in every congressional office. Others, sent by known donors, are read with hope for more money, not just more letters. Some letters pose complaints. Some pose employment when elections are lost. Some are profane, insidious, or obnoxious. Don’t write that way. Write as if you were writing to someone who cares about you. Those letters are read and relayed, if only in summary. And that’s your ethical goal—to write a letter that is read.