Advancing the Science: A Psychologist's Guide to Participation in Federal Policymaking

Abridged Version
The original text for this guide was written by Barbara J. Calkins. It was revised first by the APA Public Policy Office in 1995 and again by the APA Science Government Relations Office in 2011.


The American Psychological Association (APA) science advocacy program is the largest and most visible national presence advocating on behalf of the science of psychology. The program is administered by government relations and public policy professionals in the Science Government Relations Office (Science GRO) at the APA Central Office in Washington, D.C. Its purposes include:

  • Influencing national science and health policy and funding decision-making on behalf of the science of psychology;
  • Informing Members of Congress and their staffs about psychological research and its relevance to federal policy and to society;
  • Strengthening the voice of psychology at the federal level; and
  • Informing APA members and involving them as scientist-advocates.


The APA Science GRO is pleased to provide you with this "Psychologist's Guide to Participation in Federal Policymaking." This guide is designed to encourage psychologists toward greater participation in the public policy process. Taking part in the political life of our country is a right and a privilege too often exercised by a minority of Americans, the actions of whom have a profound effect on the personal and professional lives of us all. It is our hope that you will use this guide to develop and maintain contact with your U.S. Senators and Representative as a citizen and advocate for psychological science. The guide will inform you about how to do this, in a way that will not require you to learn all the subtleties of public policymaking or to make public policy advocation your full-time job.

APA maintains a vigorous and effective science advocacy program, and your direct contact with Congress as a constituent is a vital component of that program. Your special training and expertise uniquely qualify you to contribute to the development of science policy and to the reshaping of political attitudes toward the science of psychology.

We hope that you will use the information in this guide to support our shared goals. It is important that you coordinate your grassroots activities with our office to assure maximum effectiveness and complementary legislative strategies. Expert staff are available to work with you. Please contact the APA Science GRO at (202) 336-6182, and work with us to enhance Federal support for psychology and to promote psychological research, teaching and scientific applications.

In the sections that follow, this guide will discuss details of the legislative process which will help you put your advocacy work into perspective; give you pointers on the most effective ways to communicate with your legislators; and suggest how to use the resources of the APA Science GRO to carry out your advocacy efforts on behalf of psychology.

APA Science Advocacy

The APA, focused on expanding the recognition of psychology's scientific contributions and achievements, numbers among its primary objectives the enhancement of federal support for psychology and the promotion of psychological research, teaching and scientific applications.

In support of that goal, APA sponsors an advocacy program that is the largest and most visible national presence advocating on behalf of the science of psychology. Why advocate for psychological science at the federal level? Because programs passed by Congress affect every APA member in every state. For each APA member, that impact takes shape in a unique way. Congress decides, for example, if, as a nation, we will fund scientific research. Congress decides something about the nature of that research and about the level at which it will be funded. And Congress decides whether research will involve the use of non-human animals, or whether certain types of questions can be asked of human participants in research. The APA Science GRO staff work to ensure that Congress makes informed choices when making such critical decisions.

APA is called upon by Congress to offer advice in sensitive policy areas that profoundly affect the ways in which psychologists do their work. For example, the APA advises congressional decision-makers on difficult and often contentious legislative and regulatory issues such as the use of nonhuman animals in research; testing and assessment; behavioral science issues in the national security arena; and research on human sexual behavior. Through its Science GRO, APA maintains a close liaison with the constantly changing decision-makers on Capitol Hill, working with them as they formulate legislation affecting psychological research and training. The advocacy program also maintains an important liaison between APA and other scientific societies, organizations and coalitions to advance common legislative interests.

Of perhaps foremost importance to our members, APA science advocacy works to increase support for federally funded psychological research. The federal government has a tradition of generosity in support of science, but the behavioral and social sciences have had to struggle for an appropriate share of federal research resources. The competition for federal support is vigorous, and the APA science advocacy program makes the case for psychology to Congress.

On Behalf of Science, APA:
  • Actively advocates on behalf of the science of psychology for increased federal support of psychological research, develops opportunities to present testimony before House and Senate appropriations committees, and holds Capitol Hill briefings to educate Members of Congress and their staff about the relevance of psychological science to pressing national challenges;
  • Increases the number of psychologists involved in federal science policymaking by taking APA members to Capitol Hill to testify before Congress and to meet with legislators, nominating preeminent psychologists for appointment to national science advisory bodies, and sponsoring the APA Executive Branch Science Fellowship Program;
  • Works in important coalitions to develop and put forward broad public policy agendas; and
  • Brings top leaders of federal agencies and Congress together with APA science leaders to strengthen our partnerships and tackle critical issues of concern to research and psychologists.
The Public Policy Advocacy Network and Science Policy Insider News

A major and continuing objective of the Science GRO is to help interested scientists advocate for psychological science. This includes providing them with timely information on legislative and regulatory issues of importance to psychology. To meet this goal, Science GRO maintains the Public Policy Advocacy Network (PPAN). The Action Alerts and Information Updates you receive through PPAN will help provide you with the information you need to be an effective advocate for psychology. In addition, Science GRO also maintains Science Policy Insider News (SPIN) [now APA Science Policy News] — a monthly electronic newsletter covering the important policy issues that affect psychological science and psychological scientists at the national level.

PPAN is an electronic network, and we will send you Action Alerts via email. You can also subscribe to or read more about ASPN.

A Short Course in the Legislative Process

Understanding the Legislative Process

This section was adapted and reprinted, with permission, from Make Your Voice Heard, a publication of AARP/VOTE, The Voter Education Program of the AARP.

Any legislator can introduce a piece of legislation, which is known as a bill. A bill is introduced in a given chamber of a legislature — either the House of Representatives or the Senate. A bill is given a number by the clerk of the chamber in which it is introduced, such as 'S. 1' for the first bill introduced in the Senate, or 'H.R. 92' for the 92nd bill introduced in the House of Representatives during that legislative session.

The bill is then almost always referred to the appropriate committee for consideration. The committee system is intended to provide specialized consideration of bills covering a specific topic. By concentrating on one area of government, the members of the committee and their staff become experts on the topics within their jurisdictions. For example, the House Science and Technology Committee has jurisdiction over the National Science Foundation (NSF), and members of the Committee and their staffs are informed on NSF-related issues.

Most committees have subcommittees, which focus on a subset of areas within the jurisdiction of the full committee. The bill is referred to the appropriate subcommittee, where hearings may be held. Interested organizations and individuals can testify at these hearings, stating the reasons for their support or opposition, and suggesting ways in which the bill can be improved. Committee staff may then draft modifications to the bill.

After hearings, the subcommittee may mark up the bill, a process during which changes, called amendments, may be made to the bill. The bill is then reported to the full committee, where yet another markup may take place.

The full committee may then vote to report out the bill to the full chamber of the legislative body.

In the U.S. House of Representatives, most legislation is referred to the Rules Committee after being reported out from a full committee. The Rules Committee votes to give the bill a rule, which sets the time limits for debate and the manner in which amendments to the bill will be accepted. If a bill can be amended by the full legislative body, it is given an open rule. If it cannot be amended, it is said to have been given a closed rule. These are the basic parameters of the rule process. More detailed rulings exist and are used occasionally.

The legislative chamber's leadership, such as the Speaker of the House in the U.S. House of Representatives or the Senate Majority Leader in the U.S. Senate, has significant power over the scheduling of votes on a bill before the full chamber. The leadership may decide to move action on the bill quickly, or they may try to keep the legislation from ever being voted upon, depending on the politics surrounding the piece of legislation.

Once the bill reaches the full chamber, it is debated on the floor of the chamber by all interested legislators. If amendments are permitted, Members can propose amendments and request votes on them. Finally, the bill, as amended, is voted on and passes, or fails to pass, out of that chamber of the legislature.

In the U.S. Congress the bill is then sent to the other chamber of the legislature. For example, a bill passed in the U.S. House of Representatives is then sent to the Senate for its consideration. Generally, the same process of legislation is repeated in this other chamber. The bill is referred to committee and subcommittee, hearings and markups are held, and it is then reported out to the full chamber for a vote.

By the time the bill is voted on in the second chamber, it has usually been modified by amendments and is somewhat different than the bill passed by the first chamber. Thus the bill must now be referred to a conference committee, made up of several members of each chamber, where differences between the two versions are eliminated by compromise and reconciliation. This committee then issues a conference report containing the bill with its agreed upon compromises, which is sent to both chambers for final approval.

Once both chambers have passed the identical legislation, the bill is then sent to the President to be signed into law. The signature of the chief executive is generally the final step in enactment of a new law. If the President does not approve of the bill, the President may veto the legislation and send it back to the legislature.

If a bill receives a veto, it will not become law unless each chamber of the legislature votes (by a two-thirds margin) to override the veto. If the legislature overrides the veto, then the bill gains passage and becomes law.

Once a bill becomes law, it usually requires funding as well. In the process described above, legislation is authorized. A bill is passed establishing a program or function, setting standards, time limits, reporting requirements, and the maximum dollar amount that may be spent on the program or function.

Next, a different piece of legislation funds the program or function by appropriating monies for the implementation of the law.

Consequently, to both create and fund legislation, two different bills may need to be steered through the legislative process.

Copies of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives documents mentioned in this section, including bills, committee reports, conference reports, and public laws, can be obtained at no charge by  accessing the Library of Congress THOMAS Database.

Congressional Committees and Subcommittees that Affect Psychological Research and Training

U.S. House of Representatives

In the House of Representatives, authorizations for most Public Health Service (PHS) agencies, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), fall within the jurisdiction of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. More specifically, the committee's Subcommittee on Health develops the NIH and SAMHSA reauthorizing legislation, along with many other measures of interest to psychology. Once authorized, funding for most PHS agencies must be approved by the House Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies. This subcommittee divides its allocation of the overall Federal budget among the nation's health, education and social welfare programs.

Authorization for the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) falls within the jurisdiction of the House Committee on Science and Technology. Once authorized, funding for NSF and NASA must be approved by the House Committeeon Appropriations, Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is authorized by the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs. Funding for VA must be approved by the House Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies.

The research and training activities of the Department of Defense fall under the jurisdiction of the House Committee on Armed Services. Once authorized, funding decisions regarding these activities are made by the House Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on Defense.

U.S. Senate

In the Senate, authorizations for mostPHS agencies, including the NIH and SAMHSA, fall within the jurisdiction of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. Most matters concerning PHS agencies are handled at the full committee level and are not referred to a subcommittee. Once authorized, funding for most PHS agencies must be approved by the Senate Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee onLabor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies.

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation has primary jurisdiction for authorization of NSF and NASA. Once authorized, funding for NSF, NASA and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy must be approved by the Senate Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies. The Department of Veterans Affairs is authorized by the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs. Funding for VA must be approved by the Senate Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies.

The research and training activities of the Department of Defense fall under the jurisdiction of the Senate Committee on Armed Services. Once authorized, funding decisions regarding these activities are made by the Senate Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on Defense.

How a Legislator Decides How to Vote

Here is how one lawmaker, former U.S. Representative Lee Hamilton of Indiana, described the process by which he and his colleagues decided how to cast their votes on legislation. This summary was extracted from the Congressional Record and reprinted with the permission of AARP/VOTE.

“A question that has intrigued me is how various members of Congress decide how to vote. Members cast about 400 votes a year on the most difficult and controversial issues on the national agenda. My impression is that in deciding how to vote, Members weigh three goals: 'They want to make good policy, gain respect inside Congress, and get re-elected.”

Representative Hamilton then went on to explain the major forces that molded his thinking on a given issue. Notice which he felt was the most important:

  • Constituents
    Constituents are the most important influence on a Member's voting decision. Whether Members are agents of their constituents' wishes or free to exercise their own judgment is a classic question in a representative democracy. But all Members ask themselves on each vote where their constituents stand on the issue. On those issues where the constituency expresses strong preferences, the Member is almost certain to favor them.
  • Colleagues
    Other Members of Congress are important sources of information because, as professional politicians, they will tailor their advice to a Member's needs; they are often well-informed on the issue; and they are available at the time of the vote. Members also pay special attention to the other Members of their State delegation, because they share common interests and problems.
  • Lobbies
    Interest groups are neither the most nor least important influence on Congress. Lobbyists can help or hinder a Member's work. They can provide members with easily digested information and innovative proposals.
  • The Executive Branch
    The President is, in many respects, the chief legislator. With his excellent sources of information, his ability to initiate legislation, to appeal to all Americans, and to set the legislative agenda, the President has formidable power in the legislative process.
  • Party Leadership
    Recent electoral changes in Congress have made political party leadership a much more significant factor in Members' decisions. Members of Congress now often hear from their party leaders about specific votes on legislation. There is more effort expended by the leadership of their party in the Congress, i.e., the Speaker and the Majority and Minority leaders.
  • Media
    News media may have their greatest effect on Congress as agenda setters. By focusing attention on a particular issue, they can get the American people and the Congress to deal with it. In considering a vote, Members must anticipate how that vote will be played by the media.
  • Staff
    It is a mistake to underestimate the importance of congressional staff in the legislative process. Because of Members' hectic schedules, they rely on staff to help them evaluate legislation. Today's staffers usually have a good appreciation of political processes, but their main strength is substantive technical knowledge.

    Members of Congress vote several times every legislative day on diverse and complex issues. Usually they have more information than they can assimilate, so they need and seek help. It is then that decision-making becomes a very personal matter. When the voting clock is running down, the Member must make a decision. The Member knows that in our democracy he or she alone will be held accountable for it.
  • Regulatory Process
    After a bill is passed by Congress and becomes law, it is referred to the appropriate Executive Branch agency for the development of implementing regulations. While laws outline the general intent of Congress, regulations spell out the specific details of how the law will be applied. For laws of interest to scientific psychology, regulations are developed by government agencies including the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Office of Management and Budget, and others.

Effective Communications

Identifying and Locating Your Legislators

The first step in effective communications with Congress is determining the right person to contact. It is generally most effective to contact your own legislator — the woman or man who represents your congressional district. As your elected official, this is the person who represents you and who must be sensitive to your views. Legislators maintain both a Washington, D.C. office and a district office located back home. APA can help identify and locate your legislator, or you can go online and enter your zip code to determine the name of your U.S. Representative. Your two U.S. Senators will be listed by state on the U.S. Senate website.

There may be occasions, however, when it will be appropriate and helpful to your purpose to contact other members of Congress. For example, when the chair of a congressional committee wishes to monitor broad public opinion at a critical point in the legislative process, or when you have special expertise in a specific area in which a congressional committee or subcommittee is developing policy, your communication with them can be important. The APA Science GRO staff are in the best position to advise you on such exceptions. Contact us if you are interested in developing communications beyond your own representative and senators.

Once you know whom to contact, you can obtain his or her Washington office telephone number, or be connected with the Washington office directly, by calling the U.S. Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121. Each member of Congress now also maintains a website, to which you can be directed by first going to the U.S. House of Representatives or U.S. Senate website. 

Understanding the Role of Congressional Staff

Whether calling, writing or visiting a congressional office, it is important to understand the role of your representative's or senator's staff members. Most congressional offices will have a legislative assistant, or LA, handling your content area of interest. Many congressional staff members are recent college graduates and so may appear relatively inexperienced. However, each senator and representative relies heavily on his or her staff to be knowledgeable and informed on the issues. Because the information and advice they provide is often effective in shaping the legislator's opinion on an issue, any time spent discussing your views with them will be a good investment.

In addition to the staff members in the legislator's personal office, the committees and subcommittees of Congress also have professional staff members. These staff members are often more focused in their responsibilities. While a personal staff member usually has multiple subject areas of responsibility, for example, covering science issues, defense, budget, veterans' issues and environmental issues, a committee staff member is often able to specialize in a small number of areas and to acquire expertise in them. These staff members work for the legislator who chairs the committee or subcommittee or who serves as its Ranking Minority Member.

Staff members in legislators' personal district offices serve still a different function. These staff members take care of the lawmaker's appointments and appearances in the district. They also serve as caseworkers who help to resolve the problems of the district's citizens as they relate to federal programs. For example, a district office caseworker can help find out why a social security recipient's check is late. Usually members of the personal district office staff are not involved in issues of public policymaking or science advocacy.

Writing a Letter as a Constituent

Congressional offices in Washington receive numerous letters from constituents each day, most commonly now in the form of emails or faxes, given the need to screen all physical mail sent to Congressional buildings. When sending an email or fax, you should format it as a formal letter for the most impact. These guidelines will improve the effectiveness of your letter:

When addressing correspondence, this is the proper style:


The Honorable Jane Smith
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515

Dear Representative Smith:


The Honorable John Jones
U.S. Senate
Washington, DC 20510

Dear Senator Jones:

  • Be direct. State the subject of your letter clearly, keep it brief and address only one issue in each letter.
  • Be informative. State your own views, support them with your expert knowledge and cite the bill number (House bill: H.R. or Senate bill: S.) of relevant legislation, if appropriate.
  • Be constructive. Rely on the facts and avoid emotional arguments, threats of political influence or demands.
  • Be political. Explain the hometown relevance of this issue. Use your institution's stationery, if authorized (be sure to check with your institution’s federal relations and/or public affairs staff first).
  • Be discriminate. Write only on the issues that are very important to you and avoid the risk of diluting your effectiveness.
  • Be inquiring. Ask for the legislator's view on the subject and how she or he intends to vote on relevant legislation. Expect a reply, even if it's only a form letter.
  • Be available. Offer additional information if needed and make sure your legislator knows how to reach you.
  • Be appreciative. Remember to say 'thanks' when it is deserved. Follow the issue after you write and send a letter of thanks if your legislator votes your way.

Making a Telephone Call as a Constituent

The guidelines for making an effective telephone call to a congressional office are similar to those for effective letter writing, with a few additions. Remember, you can reach your legislator's Washington office by dialing the U.S. Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121, giving the name of your legislator, and asking to be connected with her or his office.

When preparing for a telephone call, start at the beginning, just as you would in a letter, remembering that the person you talk to may have just gotten off of the telephone with another constituent who had a very different concern. Be prepared with facts and information at your fingertips and a clear idea of what you want your telephone call to achieve.

You can ask to speak to your senator or representative, but don't be disappointed if he or she is not available. Next, ask to speak with the legislative assistant who handles the subject of your interest. Remember, this is often just as effective. If the relevant staff member is not available, you can ask for a return call or leave a concise message, such as, "My name is Dr. Jane Jones and I am a professor of psychology at the University of Hometown. I am calling to ask for the Senator's support on..." Be prepared to give your address or telephone number.

Meeting with Your Legislator

A carefully planned face-to-face visit with your legislator is the most effective means of conveying your message. Such a meeting can be arranged while you are visiting Washington. APA Science GRO staff are always willing to work with you to set up such a meeting whether you are in town for an APA governance meeting or for another purpose. You can also arrange a meeting in your legislator's district office.

  • Make an appointment. Contact your legislator's appointment secretary, state your affiliations and the subject you wish to discuss, and ask for 15 to 30 minutes of your legislator's time. If it is clear that the legislator is unable to meet with you, then a very good substitute is a meeting with the relevant legislative assistant (LA). Legislators have a demanding schedule. In fact, you should not be surprised or disappointed if you meet with the LA, even if your appointment was scheduled to be with the legislator.
  • Do your homework. Learn as much as you can about the legislator's record as it relates to your issue.
  • Be on time. But don't be surprised if they are not. Congressional schedules are hectic, and being a visitor to Capitol Hill often requires patience and flexibility.
  • Establish ties. Introduce yourself, convey information about your affiliations and exchange pleasantries briefly. But don't get bogged down in small talk. You will have precious few minutes with the legislator, so keep to your purpose for the meeting.
  • Be prepared. Have your information ready in a digestible, concise form, just as you would when writing a letter or making a telephone call. Know the opposing arguments as well as those in favor of your view. Take your cues on how to proceed from the legislator. If he or she seems familiar with the issue, you can move right ahead. If not, take the opportunity to inform him or her.
  • Be inquiring. Ask your legislator to state his or her position on your issue. Know what you want in advance, and ask for it. Be tolerant of differing views and keep the dialogue open.
  • Be responsive. Try to answer questions. When you can't, offer to get back to your legislator with the information. Thank him or her for the time spent with you. Follow up with a thank you note, capitalizing on the opportunity to restate your points.
  • Be appreciative. Follow up with a letter of thanks.

Inviting Your Legislator To Visit

This section was adapted with permission from Make Your Voice Heard, a publication of AARP/VOTE.

Would it surprise you to know that your legislator might be interested in visiting your research site? Sometimes the most convincing case is the one seen firsthand. If your research is federally funded, then a visit from your representative is a natural occurrence. Such visits keep lawmakers in touch with the interests and needs of their constituents, inform them about less familiar subject areas, and provide you with an opportunity to strengthen your relationship with the legislator. Especially attractive to a representative is the opportunity to meet a great number of concerned and involved constituents during a congressional 'District Work Period' when Congress stands in recess. Of course, the initiative to arrange such a visit will have to come from you.

Appearances or site visits by public officials are exciting, but they require a great deal of advance planning. Here are a few tips:

  1. Arrange and coordinate the event with the staff scheduler from the representative's office. Send a written request with all of the appropriate details, such as time, place, duration of the visit, number of attendees and other guests, activities planned, etc. If you are inviting your member of Congress to an APA sponsored event, you should coordinate the invitation very closely with the APA Science GRO. We can also provide valuable advice if you are inviting him or her to tour your research site.
  2. You may wish to have members of the local press attend the visit. Contact your institution's public relations office or press office for professional help with this. Be sure that your lawmaker's press secretary is informed before members of the press are invited. It is important to target the right reporters to invite to the event. In this case it could be a political reporter who covers the lawmaker, or it could be a science or health reporter, or all three. Your public relations or press office can invite them by sending a media advisory (a one-page announcement with basic information) or by sending a press release, following up with a telephone call two days before the event. You might consider having your institution's photographer on hand and using a photograph in your institution's newsletter or sending a copy to your legislator's office for her or his newsletter. The APA Public and Member Communications Office at (202) 336-5500 can help with questions you might have about inviting the press.
  3. Notify anyone who will be affected by the visit, such as colleagues in your department and the university leadership, well in advance, and again the day before the event.
  4. Provide the legislator's office with precise and detailed directions to the event and designate a contact person who will be available as a liaison in advance of the event.
  5. Meet the legislator before the event, allow time for introductions, and provide a briefing on the itinerary and a time schedule for the event. Discuss important factors surrounding the visit, for example, how many scientists are in the facility or the amount and source of federal funds received.
  6. Introduce your guest. Give a brief explanation of why he or she is visiting and announce whether or not there will be a question and answer session.
  7. Follow up on any commitments made to the legislator at the event. Coordinate with the legislator's press secretary on the details of a press release, if called for.
  8. Don't forget to send a thank you note, possibly containing photographs taken during the event, as well as any press clippings or news coverage generated by the event.
  9. Stay involved.


Why should you become more politically aware and more politically involved? Because decisions made each and every day by Congress have an impact on psychology and on the way in which psychologists do their work. Remember that your elected officials routinely make decisions about the conduct, funding, and nature of scientific research. The men and women making these decisions are, with precious few exceptions, not scientists. These men and women must, therefore, rely upon the expressed views of their constituents, the information of the experts, and their own opinions to make important decisions. As a psychologist, as a scientist and as a citizen, you have a right and a responsibility to inform those decisions.