For practical purposes, when would one write a Senator instead of a Representative and vice versa?
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There are typically several ways to contact a representative in the United States. As a general rule, you should contact the representative from your district, unless you wish to address a specific representative about an issue such as a law he or she has sponsored. Many representatives make it very easy for their constituents to contact them with letters, phone calls, emails, or drop-in visits to their offices, and many constituents are unaware of the wide range of services their representatives offer.
The first step to contact a representative is to figure out which representative you want to contact. For national issues, you want to contact your Senator, Congressperson, or both. Both the House and the Senate have websites with a wide variety of information about their members, including a section which allows you to find your representative. If you already know who your representative is, you can search for his or her name; this should bring up a website with contact information. If you need to contact a State representative about a state issue, you can repeat this process. You can also check your local phonebook, which typically includes listings for both the National and State representatives in your district.
There are several options when you want to contact a representative, and you may want to think about the option that works best for you. For example, if you just want to register support or opposition to a bill, a phone call or email can be highly effective. If you want to address an issue in a more in-depth fashion, a formal letter is often preferable, as staffers in the representative's office may be more inclined to ensure that the letter is seen by the representative.
You can also walk into your representative's office to contact a representative. Many representatives have regional offices in the districts they represent, and while your representative is often away in Washington or at your State Capitol, the staff in the office can assist you with a wide variety of needs. Walk-in visits are sometimes inconvenient for staffers, so you may want to make an appointment to ensure that someone will take the time to meet with you and address your issue.
When you contact a representative, be assured that every communication which reaches the office of a representative is considered, even if the representative does not see it. For example, before a representative votes on a bill, he or she will typically check with the office to see how many constituents commented on the issue. Many representatives also want to hear about issues in their districts, and they may be willing to champion a cause for you if you write a polite, well worded, and persuasive letter, especially if it is an election year.