The U.S. Postal Service handled about 60 billion first-class letters and packages in 1990. That means, if you live in an average American household, you and your family sent about 620 letters during the last year. Were any of them sent to a senator, representative or government official? Did any of them deal with environmental issues?
It may surprise you, but writing to Congress (or other branches of government) is still one of the most effective things individuals can do to help protect our environment. Important issues are being debated all the time. For example: According to the Office of Legislative Information and Bill Status, more than 1,000 bills containing a reference to the environment were introduced during the last session of Congress. By speaking out on any of these bills, you automatically increase your "political clout"; many congressmen and congresswomen consider opinions expressed in a letter to represent at least 100 votes. Here are some guidelines for making your letters to Congress more effective.
* Personal letters are preferable to preprinted cards. "Handwritten letters show that a person has taken the time to think about an issue and has a viewpoint on it," says one veteran lobbyist. "The more people write out of their own convictions, the more likely they are to get a response."
* Write about one topic at a time.
* Letters that are short and to the point are more likely to get read; legislators often use letters simply to count the number of people who support or oppose bills.
* In your first sentence, state that you oppose or support a bill or issue, so it's easy to tell which side you're on.
* Postcards are easier to send -- and easier to read.
* If you're referring to a bill, make sure you have the right number and title (it's important -- there are thousands of bills every year). You can find out this information by calling your local congressional office.
* State your case: Show that you understand the issue and explain how it affects you and your community.
* If it's appropriate, send a thank-you letter once the issue is decided. According to one expert, for every 100 to 250 letters that legislators receive a week, only about two are thank-you letters. If you send a thank-you, they may remember you the next time you write.
"Encourage your kids to write letters, too," suggests a staff person in Sen. Albert Gore's office. "It's a great way for them to get involved in the political process."
* Don't have time to research the issues? Join 20/20 Vision. The name stands for 20 minutes a month (which is how long it takes to write a letter) and $20 a year (the suggested subscription fee). It'll send you an "action alert" postcard each month outlining a suggested issue or bill to write about and, later, updates on the results of the letter-writing campaigns. Write 20/20 Vision at 60 S. Pleasant St., No. 203, Amherst, Mass. 01002 for information, or call (800) 347-2767.
* For information on important environmental bills when Congress is in session, call one of these Washington hot lines: the Sierra Club hot line, (202) 547-5550; the Audubon Society, (202) 547-9017.
* Don't have time to write? You can still make a statement. EarthCards (a book from Conari Press, $6.95) contains printed and addressed postcards urging legislators and company officials to take action on specific issues. There's room on each card for a personal note.