Dear colleague letter (United States)
A "Dear Colleague" letter is an official correspondence which is sent by a Member, committee, or officer of the United States House of Representatives or United States Senate and which is distributed in bulk to other congressional offices. A "Dear Colleague" letter may be circulated in paper form through internal mail, distributed on a chamber floor, or sent electronically.
"Dear Colleague" letters are often used to encourage others to cosponsor, support, or oppose a bill. "Dear Colleague" letters concerning a bill or resolution generally include a description of the legislation or other subject matter along with a reason or reasons for support or opposition. Senders or signatories of such letters become identified with the particular issue. "Dear Colleague" letters can also create an "unofficial link" in the Capitol Hill information chain.
Additionally, "Dear Colleague" letters are used to inform Members and their offices about events connected to congressional business or modifications to House or Senate operations. The Committee on House Administration and the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, for example, routinely circulate "Dear Colleague" letters to Members concerning matters that affect House or Senate operations, such as House changes to computer password policies or a reminder about Senate restrictions on mass mailings prior to elections.
These letters frequently begin with the salutation "Dear Colleague." The length of such correspondence varies, with a typical "Dear Colleague" running one to two pages.
Member-to-Member correspondence has long been used in Congress. For example, since early House rules required measures to be introduced only in a manner involving the "explicit approval of the full chamber," Representatives needed permission to introduce legislation. A not uncommon communication medium for soliciting support for this action was a letter to colleagues. Representative Abraham Lincoln, in 1849, formally notified his colleagues in writing that he intended to seek their authorization to introduce a bill to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia.
The phrase "Dear Colleague" has been used to refer to a widely distributed letter among Members at least since early in the 20th century. In 1913, the New York Times included the text of a "Dear Colleague" letter written by Representative Finley H. Gray to Representative Robert N. Page in which Gray outlined his "conceptions of a fit and proper manner" in which Members of the House should "show their respect for the President" and "express their well wishes" to the first family. In 1916, the Washington Post included the text of a "Dear Colleague" letter written by Representative William P. Borland and distributed to colleagues on the House floor. The letter provided an explanation of an amendment he had offered to a House bill.
Congress has since expanded its use of the Internet and electronic devices to facilitate distribution of legislative documents. Electronic "Dear Colleague" letters can be disseminated via internal networks in the House and Senate, supplementing or supplanting paper forms of the letters. Such electronic communication has increased the speed and facilitated the process of distributing "Dear Colleague" letters.
Use of "Dear Colleague" Letters
In the contemporary Congress, Members use both printed copy distribution and electronic delivery for sending "Dear Colleague" letters.
House of Representatives
In the House, Members may choose to send "Dear Colleague" letters through internal mail, through the e-"Dear Colleague" system, or both. Regardless of distribution method, House "Dear Colleague" letters are required to address official business and must be signed by a Member or officer of Congress.
Members of the House often send out "Dear Colleague" letters to recruit cosponsors for their measures. The practice of recruiting cosponsors has become more important since the passage of H.Res. 42 in the 90th Congress (1967-1969). H.Res. 42 amended House rules to permit bill cosponsors, but limited the number to 25. In 1979, the House agreed to H.Res. 86, which further amended House rules to permit unlimited numbers of cosponsors.
"Dear Colleague" letters sent through internal mail must be written on official letterhead, address official business, and be signed by a Member or officer of Congress. A cover letter must accompany the "Dear Colleague" letter, addressed to the deputy chief administrative officer of the House for customer solutions, with specific distribution instructions and authorization as to the number to be distributed. The deadline for morning distribution is 9:45 a.m. and for afternoon mail delivery 1:45 p.m.
The current number of paper copies needed for distribution of a "Dear Colleague" letter in the House is 
e-"Dear Colleague" System
An increasing number of congressional offices transmit "Dear Colleague" letters electronically. Pursuant to the House Members' Congressional Handbook, the rules regulating a paper "Dear Colleague" letter sent via internal mail are also applicable to a letter sent electronically. Electronic versions of "Dear Colleague" letters sent prior to August 12, 2008, are stored in a Microsoft Exchange public folder that is accessible to all House Members and staff. Electronic versions of "Dear Colleague" letters sent on or after August 12, 2008, are archived on the House e-"Dear Colleague" website.
Since 2003, 46,072 "Dear Colleague" letters have been sent electronically. In 2007, 12,297 "Dear Colleague" letters were sent electronically. Figure 1 [Where?] shows the total number of "Dear Colleague" letters sent electronically between 2003 and 2007. The disparity in the number of "Dear Colleague" letters sent electronically between 2003-2006 and 2007 might be explained in part by increased use of electronic communications tools in the House.
A reduction in electronic "Dear Colleague" letters sent in August may occur because of the month-long district work period or recess that normally occurs in August. Following the August recess, especially in an election year, the number of "Dear Colleague" letters decreases. The decrease may occur as the result of Congress typically adjourning in the fall.
On August 12, 2008, the House introduced a web-based e-"Dear Colleague" distribution system. The e-"Dear Colleague" system replaced the email-based system. Under the e-"Dear Colleague" system, Members and staff "will be able to compose e-Dear Colleagues online, and associate them with up to three issue areas. Members and staff will be able to independently manage their subscription to various issue areas and receive e-Dear Colleagues according to individual interest."
Similar to the House paper system, "Dear Colleague" letters in the Senate are written on official letterhead and address official business, but there is not a central distribution policy. In general, when using the paper system, Senators and chamber officers create their own "Dear Colleague" letters and have them reproduced at the Senate Printing Graphics and Direct Mail Division. Once reproduced, letters are delivered to the Senate Mailroom by the sending office, accompanied by a distribution form or cover letter with specific distribution instructions.
The current distribution numbers for "Dear Colleague" letters in the Senate are
- 100 for all Senators;
- 20 for standing, select, and special committees;
- 5 for the joint leadership; and
- 1 each for the officers of the Senate (total of 7).
The choice to send "Dear Colleague" letters electronically is at the discretion of the individual Senate office. There is no central distribution system for electronic Senate "Dear Colleague" letters.
- U.S. Congress, House, Office of the Chief Administrative Officer, HouseSmart: Reference Guide to Information and Services, 109th Cong., 1st sess. (Washington: 2005), p. 29. (Hereafter HouseSmart.)
- Internal mail circulation is handled by the House Postal Operations Office and the Senate Printing Graphics and Direct Mail Division. Electronic distribution of House "Dear Colleague" letters is available through a web-based e-"Dear Colleague" distribution system. Instructions on sending electronic "Dear Colleagues" can be found at http://e-dearcolleague.house.gov. The e-"Dear Colleague" website is available only to Members of the House of Representatives and their staff.
- "`Dear Colleague' Letters," Congressional Quarterly's Guide to Congress, 2 vols. (Washington: Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 2000), p. 645; and Abner J. Mikva and Patti B. Saris, The American Congress: The First Branch (New York: Franklin Watts, 1983), p. 203. See also Susan Webb Hammond, Congressional Caucuses in National Policy Making (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), pp. 90, 94, 128, 167, 175, 184, and 215.
- Donald A. Ritchie, "`Dear Colleague' letters," The Young Oxford Companion to the Congress of the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 67.
- Dear Colleague letter from Daniel Beard, chief administrative officer of the House, "Computer Password Protection Update," Aug. 22, 2008.
- Dear Colleague letter from Senator Dianne Feinstein, chair, and Senator Robert Bennett, ranking member, Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, July 30, 2008.
- Walter Kravitz, Congressional Quarterly's American Congressional Dictionary, 3rd ed. (Washington: CQ Press, 2001), p. 75.
- The power to introduce a bill was not regarded as the authority of any single Member. See Joseph Cooper, "Origins of the Standing Committees and the Development of the Modern House," Rice University Studies, vol. 56, summer 1970, p. 3.
- Neil MacNeil, Forge of Democracy: The House of Representatives (New York: David McKay Company Inc., 1963), pp. 57-58.
- "Discord in House over Wilson Gift," The New York Times, Oct. 31, 1913, p. 10.
- "Hears Borland Today," the Washington Post, Mar. 14, 1916, p. 5.
- CRS Report RL31103, House of Representatives Information Technology Management Issues: An Overview of the Effects on Institutional Operations, the Legislative Process, and Future Planning, by Jeffrey W. Seifert and R. Eric Petersen.
- To access the e-"Dear Colleague" system, visit http://e-dearcolleague.house.gov. Access to the e-"Dear Colleague" system is restricted to the House of Representatives.
- HouseSmart, p. 25. Officers include the chief administrative officer, the clerk of the House of Representatives, the sergeant at arms, and the chaplain.
- Michael L. Koempel and Judy Schneider, Congressional Deskbook: The Practical and Comprehensive Guide to Congress (Alexandria, Virginia: TheCapitol.Net, 2007), p. 257.
- H.Res. 42 (90th Cong.), agreed to Apr. 25, 1967. See Rep. William Colmer et al., "To Amend the Rules of the House of Representatives," Congressional Record, vol. 113, part 8 (Apr. 25, 1967), pp. 10708-10712.
- H.Res. 86 (95th Cong.), agreed to Oct. 10, 1978. The provisions of H.Res. 86 did not become effective until the beginning of the 96th Congress (1979-1981) in January 1979. Prior to this rules change, if a measure had more than 25 cosponsors, additional bills were introduced for each group of 25 cosponsors. See Rep. Gillis Long, "Amending Rules Concerning Cosponsorship of Public Bills and Resolutions," Congressional Record, vol. 124, part 26 (Oct. 10, 1978), pp. 34929-34930.
- HouseSmart, p. 25.
- Telephone conversation between the author and FirstCall+, Sept. 25, 2007.
- HouseSmart, p. 29, and http://housenet.house.gov/portal/server.pt?open=512&objID=313&&PageID=23832&mode=2&in_hi_userid=2&cached=true, accessed Aug. 20, 2008.
- U.S. Congress, Committee on House Administration, Members' Handbook, p. 41, accessed Aug. 20, 2008.
- Based on email between the author and John Clocker, advanced business solutions, Chief Administrative Officer of the House, Sept. 11, 2008.
- U.S. Congress, Chief Administrative Officer of the House of Representatives, "Search e-Dear Colleagues", accessed Aug. 20, 2008.
- The 43,977 "Dear Colleague" letters sent electronically between 2003 and 2007 include individual letters that are sent multiple times by an office. For example, if a Member electronically sent a "Dear Colleague" letter at 9:00 a.m. and sent the same letter again at 2:00 p.m., it would be counted twice in the data set.
- missing footnote 29
- Electronic Dear Colleague System Stakeholder Session briefing with John Clocker, Office of the Chief Administrative Officer of the House of Representatives, June 25, 2008.
- Dear Colleague Letter from Representative Robert A. Brady, chair, Committee on House Administration, "New Web-based e-Dear Colleague System went live today, August 12, 2008," Aug. 12, 2008.
- "Dear Colleagues" webpage, Webster Senate Intranet, accessed Aug. 20, 2008. Webster is available only to Senators and their staff.
- Senate "Dear Colleague" distribution form is available at http://webster.senate.gov/uploads/dearcolleagueform.pdf, accessed Aug. 20, 2008. Officers of the Senate include the President of the Senate, President pro tempore, secretary of the majority, secretary of the minority, secretary of the Senate, sergeant at arms, and chaplain.
- While no central distribution system for electronic "Dear Colleague" letters exists in the Senate, other organizations (i.e., party organizations and informal caucuses) may choose to distribute "Dear Colleague" letters to their membership.