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These organizations are trying to make it easier for Americans to talk to Congress


If you've ever felt like you couldn't get through to your senator or representative, you're not alone. Between canceled town halls and layers of bureaucracy, it can sometimes feel hard to communicate your needs to those who represent you in the nation's capital.

If you're unhappy with the policies of the Trump administration, the Republican Congress or the Democratic minority, though, there are a couple solutions, from a group hand-delivering letters to joining a mass email campaign through an advocacy group of your choice.

There is one school of thought among advocates Washington, D.C.: that hand-delivering a letter will make a bigger impact than sending it through the mail. The "Stampslicked" website has adopted this idea, and provides a template that allows any American to write a letter to their member of Congress through the website. That letter is then is handed off to another organization, Herd on the Hill.

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Every few weeks, the Herd navigates the web of government office buildings on Capitol Hill that host Senate and House of Representatives offices. With manila folders full of letters stuffed under their arms, members of the Herd criss-cross the underground hallways that connect Hart to Dirksen and back to Cannon. As they go, they knock on office doors and try to put each letter into the hands of the aide who works on a specific issue -- or perhaps even the congressperson themselves. Sometimes they set up phone calls directly between a constituent and an aide as well, in hopes of helping Americans bypass the often-overloaded congressional voicemail system.

The hope, for members of Herd on the Hill, is that physically showing up in the office of a representative will make an issue they are passionate about stick in the minds of legislative aides and their bosses more so than a voicemail or a form letter.

"I think if you live in Nebraska or you live in Florida or you live in Illinois, you may not understand that any one of us can walk into any one of these buildings and go see any member of Congress," says Amy Nazarov, one of the organizers of the Herd and a D.C. resident.

"I would say 60 percent of the time it's more of just an exchange of data, an exchange of letters," said Nazarov, who added that in the other 40 percent of the interactions there may be a discussion with an aide in which they may receive "a nugget of information" about where the member stands on that issue -- or they may even talk to the member themselves.

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Whether hand-delivering a letter makes a difference, though, is up for debate.

According to a former communications and legislation staffer who spoke to Circa anonymously about the way her office functioned behind-the-scenes, hand-delivering a letter often doesn't make any particular difference. Rather, this staffer said, "the way the message is delivered is secondary to the message being delivered."

Many congressional offices -- including the one in which this staffer worked -- log emails in massive databases, sorting them by subject to get a better idea of who is reaching out on each particular issue. Personal stories stand out, but all letters and calls are logged into the system the same way, with no special preference being given on account of the way they were delivered, according to this staffer.

Muster, a tech company based in Richmond, Virginia, offers another way for Americans to get the attention of their representatives. Through the Muster app, advocacy groups can organize email campaigns designed to flood the inbox of a House or Senate member -- with the goal of pressuring them to vote a certain way on an issue.

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"The volume and quantity of an email campaign absolutely matters, as long as it's from a real constituent," said Cleo Dan, Muster's director of communications. Dan adds, though, that a personal note supersedes a formula email. An anecdote about why the issue is specifically important to the constituent, she said, can make all the difference.

But constituents can't send messages through Muster on their own. Instead, they have to go through an organization that uses the Muster app.

Herd on the Hill, meanwhile, will deliver individual letters in person and help a constituent bypass the Capitol Hill press office, where the screening process can create a backlog. The Herd has one catch, though: if your issues lean conservative, like pressuring Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) or Arizona Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) into backing the Obamacare repeal, Herd on the Hill may not be for you -- at least for the moment.

"I guess if we’re in this for another three and a half years, we may start getting letters from people who are not progressive," Nazarov mused in the rotunda of Russell Senate Office Building after a handout session. "I'm going to have to cross that bridge when I come to it."

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