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Getting a busy signal when you call Congress? Here's how to get through.

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Amid a surge in Americans calling their senators and representatives – and often getting busy signals or full voicemail boxes – a new report sheds light on how best to target your advocacy.

Sen. Steve Daines (R) of Montana helps with a surge in constituent telephone calls to his office on Capitol Hill in Washington on Jan. 31, 2017. Many members of Congress are experiencing a surge in constituent phone calls.
Office of Sen. Steve Daines (R) of Montana via AP
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On the day after the presidential election, Jean woke up in despair – and realized she needed to do something. But what?

This is a question facing many Americans who are unhappy with the Trump administration. Eight years ago, it was a question facing many who were unhappy with the Obama administration. One thing Americans can do, no matter where they sit on the political spectrum, is to exercise their constitutional right to “petition the government for a redress of grievances."

So Jean – a mom, registered independent, and newly active citizen advocate in the greater New York City area – went to a women's march, met activists, and started calling the district offices of her two senators three to four times a week.

She's not alone.

At a time when citizens are inundating their representatives with a massive level of organized and organic communication – from angry town halls to phone call and email campaigns – it’s important to know how best to get a lawmaker to listen.

According to a new report by the nonpartisan Congressional Management Foundation, which works to improve communications between Congress and constituents, Jean is doing a lot of things right. She makes a specific “ask” for her senators, to which they can later be held accountable. She’s building a relationship with the local offices. She’s also saying thanks. Whether the mass calling is a good idea is debatable.

Here are some other suggestions from the report and advocacy groups on both sides. While the surge in advocacy is coming mainly from progressives, this guidance applies to Americans of all political stripes.

What is most effective?

In-person visits are the best way to influence lawmakers who have not yet made up their mind on an issue, according to 94 percent of Capitol Hill respondents in the foundation’s report, which compiled data from hundreds of staffers over more than a decade. Advocacy groups agree.

You can call or email for an appointment in Washington or a district office to see the member or more likely, someone on the member's staff. Work to build a relationship over time.

It’s helpful also to prep a staffer in advance, including sending them evidence relevant to your position. But not everyone can make it to Washington or to a member’s district office.

What about town halls?

This fixture in American politics is another opportunity for face-time with a Congress member. But when town halls turn into verbal brawls – as they sometimes did at tea party town-hall protests during the Obama administration and as they have with progressives flooding GOP town halls – they can be counterproductive.

Yes, representatives see that people are upset. That registers. But angry mobs can also stiffen a lawmaker’s resolve, or prompt them to use telephone town halls instead of in-person ones. Congress has a recess next week, and Republicans have been advised to hire security, limit crowd size, and make sure they have a way to safely leave the building.

“Nobody likes getting yelled at,” says Noah Wall, national director of campaigns for FreedomWorks, the conservative advocacy group. “The way to change members of Congress’s minds is to be persuasive in your argument.”

He notes that anger never repealed the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare.” But when channeled to the polling booth, it produced a Republican sweep that now has the potential to repeal.

Should I call or write?

Opinions differ on the benefits of calling vs. emails and other electronic communications. In its report, the Congressional Management Foundation found that individualized emails are more influential on an undecided lawmaker than are either phone calls or form emails.

Personally written emails and even snail-mail letters give members of Congress a chance to hear a constituent’s story, and show how legislation might directly affect them, says Brad Fitch, the president of the foundation.

He says that phone calls are tabulated and produce either a “for” or “against” count – still useful, but less so. In heavy volume times such as these, voicemail stacks up and staffers – who because of budget cuts are about what they were in 1980 – have to take notes and tabulate, and sometimes simply can’t keep up. Emails are easier to count.

But Bella Pori, co-founder of the new progressive advocacy group “Call Them In,” thinks phoning is far more effective. The group sends timely emails with issue snippets and a script for callers to contact their lawmaker. All a recipient has to do is press the link to the phone number, and they’re connected.

It’s perfect for young people, who hate talking on the phone and don’t know much about politics, says Ms. Pori, herself a millennial. Meanwhile, a call takes up two-and-a-half minutes of an intern’s day, while emails are much easier to ignore. Also, in many offices, staff rotate phone duty, so sometimes a caller actually reaches someone who works on legislation.

“We’ve seen that calling works,” says Pori. She points to Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) of Alaska, who, along with Susan Collins (R) of Maine, were the only two Republicans to vote against Betsy DeVos for education secretary. Senator Murkowski “voted against DeVos because of calls.”

Which issue(s) should I target?

The kind of issue to target, and the message that accompanies it are incredibly important.

Asking senators to vote against President Trump’s nominees is going to be far less effective than targeting specific legislation, says Mr. Fitch. That’s because Republicans control the Senate, and it only takes a majority to approve appointees – whom Republicans are generally inclined to support. Legislation that has to meet a 60-vote threshold, on the other hand,will require bipartisan support.

“There will be a different dynamic at work when we’re talking about building a $20 billion wall with Mexico, than when we’re talking about a cabinet official,” he says.

Indeed, experts suggest that Democrats need to selectively pick their issues.

“It has at times been a little bit hysterical. And worse, indiscriminate,” says Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ, speaking of Democrats’ strategy so far. “You wear out your emotional welcome if your hair catches fire too many times.”

What should I ask for?

But when the time is right, it’s important for individuals to be clear about what they specifically want a lawmaker to do. This is the “ask” by which members of Congress can later be held accountable. Adding the “why” – how something affects you or your area or issue – also helps influence members.

One more thing can assist citizens in influencing their members, and that is to get on the email list of groups that care about certain issues. These groups are following details long before these issues reach a floor vote. There are associations for every conceivable interest Americans might have, from education to deforestation, from elder care to day care.

“Everybody has a lobbyist in Washington. You just may not have met them. Find out who is actually articulating your viewpoint, and make sure you are kept informed about how legislators are acting on issues important to you,” says Fitch.

This is the citizen engagement journey on which Jean has started, and it’s going to take a commitment, she realizes. Her “old way” of doing things – signing a petition every few months – just isn’t going to cut it, she says.

“This is just going to have to be a daily thing for the next few years, until some kind of compromise or moderation appears," she says. That engagement can at times “feel weird,” she admits, “but I’m glad I’m doing it.”