Ecological expertise is rare in legislative offices, especially on Capitol Hill. While a few staff members on certain committees may specialize in ecological issues, most legislative offices have one staff member who generally handles all science issues (although the topic may make up only a small portion of his or her time). In many cases, this staffer may not be knowledgeable about many basic ecological principles. This makes the input of scientists vital for effective public policy. The Ecological Society of America has a Public Affairs Office in Washington, DC, for example, which works actively with targeted congressional offices. Surveys show, however, that legislators pay more attention to individual constituents than to organizations. In addition, as legislation becomes more technical and far reaching, policymakers must increasingly rely on information provided by those with expertise on the issue.

The information presented in this tip sheet is applicable to legislative officials at the national, state, and local levels.

Writing a Letter
Written communication to your elected official is a quick and easy way to express your views. E-mails are useful, but taking the time to hand write (or at least hand-sign) a letter is more effective. Here are a few tips:
Keep it concise. A one-pager is best, two pages maximum.
State the purpose of the letter up front and focus on only one subject area. Back up your position in the remainder of your letter. If the subject is a specific piece of legislation, cite it by name and bill number. Note the likely ramifications of the legislation; and, if possible, suggest a better approach. It is easier for congressional offices to respond to letters that address specific legislation; they may not know what to do with general "information" on a topic not tied to legislation.
Provide local examples, information, and data.
Ask for the legislator's views and/or positions.

At the National level, the suggested address style is:

The Honorable [name]
United States House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20510

The Honorable [name]
United States Senate
Washington, DC 20515

To obtain the names, telephone, and fax of your US Senators and Representative, access the web site You may also call the Capitol Hill switchboard toll free at 1/888/723-5246. Senate operator: 202/224-3121, House operator: 202/225-3121.

Making a Visit: Tailoring Language and Style
A visit to one of your legislative officials is an excellent means of communication and can also be an effective way to demonstrate your expertise and willingness to help. Having a face-to-face meeting with an elected official or one of his/her staffers, however, requires some important adjustments in language and style compared to speaking with your colleagues, your classes, or the public. In most cases, how you package and deliver your message is just as important as the message itself.

In the legislative world, it is important to remember that people are extremely busy and have little patience for great detail or lengthy meetings. Along with good manners, elected officials and their staff also value professional appearance, so plan to don business attire. Legislators (and their staff) always have an eye open for ways in which they can please their constituents, from championing legislation that their citizens favor to bringing money and jobs to their state or localities. Hence, whenever possible, time spent with a legislator of staff person should make a connection back to the state or to a particular issue that the legislator cares about.

Keep in mind that most legislative policymakers are excellent speechmakers, with a flair for catchy stories and powerful delivery. They appreciate this quality in others, so a short and engaging anecdote that serves to make a key point can go a long way. An informative one-pager with easy-to-digest information can serve as both a visual aide and a good "leave-behind." Remember too that legislators hear every day from unhappy people making demands; they rarely hear thank-yous, nor do they often receive offers of help. The easier you can make it for a congressperson or their staff to call upon you as a resource, the more likely it is that they will.

Above all, when interacting with a policy maker, don't convey negative attitudes about politicians. Keep the "bottom line" in mind and be clear in your delivery, but never patronize, and make certain you give the decision-maker or their staff an opportunity to talk. If you receive a request for help, make it a priority to respond as soon as possible — requests to scientists from legislators are rare!

Below are some additional tips to keep in mind when making a visit to legislative policy makers.
Keep it short and concise; you should plan your meeting to last no longer than 15 minutes.
If your Legislator is not available for a meeting, make an appointment with either his/her Administrative Assistant or Legislative Assistant.
Provide a general outline of your position and try to find out how much your Legislator or the staffer knows about the issue.
Use local examples and data.
Timing is important. If possible, relate your issue to something that is of current interest or on your Legislator's agenda.
Remember that you don't have to come to Washington, DC to meet with your federal legislator. It is often much easier to arrange a meeting in a district office during a congressional recess.
Come prepared with a short fact sheet that you can leave with your Legislator. This summary should state the issue, present your position, and outline the reasons for your position. One page is best.
If you are meeting with committee staff, be prepared for a more in-depth conversation. Committee staff members work on a narrower range of issues and are usually aware of at least the basic science in that area. Before meeting with these staffers, reread the existing law, the proposed changes, and any background material you can find. It is important to be well prepared in order to assist committee staff members. Feel free to focus on the more technical aspects of the issue.
Follow-up your meeting with a letter. Thank the legislator or staff member for the meeting and reiterate your position and your understanding of any commitments made during the meeting.


Keeping Updated on Science-Related Legislation
To obtain information about current federal legislation, visit "Thomas" — a service of the Library of Congress at The Ecological Society of America's Public Affairs Office tracks life science legislation and produces biweekley updates called Science and Environmental Policy Updates (SEPU). If you would like to receive the SEPU, please email the command "sub esanews {your first name, your last name}" to You may also simply visit the ESA website where the SEPUs are posted and archived at The Union of Concerned Scientist's Sound Science Initiative (SSI) strives to make it easy for busy scientists to actively participate in the public debates around biodiversity loss and climate change. UCS staff track selected legislative and agency developments and identify opportunities for scientists to take action. For more information, write or check out the UCS website at


"Seventeen Cardinal Rules for Working with Congress"
1. Convey that you understand something about Congress.
2. Demonstrate your grasp of the fundamentals of the congressional decision-making system.
3. Don't seek support of science as an entitlement.
4. Don't convey negative attitudes about politics and politicians.
5. Perform good intelligence gathering in advance.
6. Always use a systematic checklist.
7. Do your homework on the issue or problem.
8. Timing is vital.
9. Understand congressional limitations.
10. Make it easy for those in Congress to help you.
11. Keep the "bottom line" in mind.
12. Use time — yours and theirs — effectively.
13. Remember that Members and staff are mostly generalists.
14. Don't patronize either Members or staff.
15. Don't underestimate the role of staff in Congress.
16. Consider and offer appropriate follow-up.
17. Remember that the great majority of Members and staff are intelligent, hardworking, and dedicated to public service.

Reprinted from "Working with Congress: A Practical Guide for Scientists and Engineers," second edition, by William G. Wells, Jr., published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.