Pulling the Curtain Back to Reveal Congress’ Smoke and Light Show
Ever since leaving my position as a Capitol Hill staffer, I’ve always wanted to share with fellow taxpayers how such operations work. Recent polls show that better than 60 percent of Americans count themselves as conservatives. And common sense suggests that Congress too, should reflect that orientation. But, as well know, that’s not the case. As a former insider, I’ve developed a pet theory on this discrepancy. You see, unlike most of the government, Congressional offices are a model of efficiency when it comes to constituent service, on which re-election is based. It is the advantage of providing unlimited constituent service that allows most incumbents to function out of step with conservative opinion and still get re-elected. Even if special-interest money were banned from elections entirely, most Incumbents would continue to get re-elected through constituent service alone.
Why It’s Hard to Defeat Even the Worst Leftists in Congress
Members of Congress typically have 15-18 full-time staffers at their beck-and-call. It’s a busy job and the average age is just 31. Back home, they also maintain an office staffed with up to seven full-time people and a host of volunteers. In reality, campaigning for re-election never stops. Each person working for the incumbent has no job security unless their boss is re-elected. Here are the key positions in most House offices, and why they typically represent:
Administrative Assistant (AA): In some offices known as the chief of staff, these are typically wannabe Congressmen. They handle the overall management of the office, and frequently deal with the Incumbent’s most delicate political chores. In some cases, the AA is simply an administrator, with little or no policy-making input. More frequently, however, the AA is a campaign manager in a holding pattern between elections.
Legislative Director (LD): This person oversees the letter-writing operation in the office, by providing the “company line” for those staffers whose sole responsibility it is to reply to constituent correspondence. The LD writes legislation, drafts amendments, writes floor speeches, oversees research and conducts briefings.
Legislative Correspondent (LC): There are usually about five LC’s in each office who track up to ten different issues a piece. Under the watchful eye of the LD, they draft the Representative’s written responses to constituent correspondence. That’s right, LC’s read and respond to about 95 percent of the Incumbent’s incoming mail.
Press Secretary: In addition to drafting press releases, public speeches and articles, press secretaries are responsible for bombarding the district with public-interest announcements featuring the member, arranging TV appearances at home, and making sure their bosses get full credit for any public works or building projects awarded to employers back in the district.
Making Voters Feel “Listened To” is Job One for Most Congressional Offices
In addition, most offices conduct surveys of district sentiment on a wide arrange of issues, using publicly funded newsletters at least four times a year. The returns are tabulated by interest (as are all incoming individual letters). So, if you write in about social security, it is noted, entered into a database and tabulated. When legislation affecting social security comes up, the computer will generate a letter to you, advising you of the member’s stand. This automated system creates the widespread impression that the Congressman is on top of his job, and concerned with keeping you informed. Over a two-year period, most registered voters have heard from their Congressman in one form or another. So when they go into the ballot box, name recognition normally carries the incumbent. The less visible challenger, by contrast, has little or no access to special-interest money or sophisticated P.R. campaigns crucial for victory. It would cost millions for a challenger to re-create these advantages.
Constituent Service Makes Heroes Out of Even the Most Vile Incumbent
It is an age old adage that voters say: “I hate Congress but like my Representative personally.” How true. That’s because in addition to the taxpayer funded infrastructure available to members of Congress, their staffs continuously see to the needs and problems of voters. Want a VIP tour of the White House, a picture of your representative on the Capitol steps, a flag that has been flown over the Capitol, complete with certification or even an autographed photo of your representative? No problem, just call and ask. If you have problems getting your social security check, are a disabled veteran seeking more benefits, or want an investigation of IRS abuses, Congressional offices are geared to render assistance. It’s no wonder that so many voters overlook their representatives’ position on issues, and vote to re-elect out of a sense of gratitude.
How to Take Advantage of this System
Genuine citizen access to Members of Congress can be had through the back door. One critical way of getting your representative to take note of your concerns is through the district office he maintains back home. Most of the people in the district office focus on casework, as described above. In many instances, there is friction between staffers who are relegated to the district office back home, and those who work in the more prestigious Washington office, closer to the Congressman. To deal with the district office (address and number online) we suggest the following:
Playing one off against the other can be a successful stratagem. When you do not get satisfaction from the Washington office, write a diplomatic letter to the district office, indicating your displeasure. In many cases, friction and competition between staffs of the Washington and home office is barely contained. Therefore, if you can’t get a straight answer from the Washington office, a letter politely suggesting so is an excellent way to ensure that the district office manager will bring it to the member’s attention when he visits home.
For good results in getting the attention of the district office, form a group of like-minded friends to push for a particular point of view. If the district office manager perceives that you are a group of people with potential to cause trouble at election time, he’ll pay closer attention to your message. One method we suggest is that you and your friends go on a letter-to-the-editor binge, and forward photocopies to the district and Washington office on a regular basis. Use a fax, if you have one. Even today, hard paper copies count for more in the Congressional offices. If they get letters with stamps, they know you’re ticked off.
In politics, squeaky wheels get the grease. Don’t hesitate to show up at the district office, with friends or even children in tow. Be certain to ask for a meeting with the representative, especially if you feel strongly about an issue. If you get the run-around, ask the district office for a listing of the member’s next town meeting, and promise to be there with questions that have not been answered.
District offices often feel the wrath of radio talk show hosts. Radio call-ins are an excellent way to get the members’ attention at home. If you and your friends have set up some kind of ad-hoc committee that always seems to be in print and on the radio, the members will have to acknowledge and eventually even meet with you, if for no other reason than to take the political wind out of your sails.
Even Taxpayers Can Make a Difference
Members of Congress can become very sensitive to local activists (frequently such people are hired by the district office). It is important that you mount your campaign on a systematic basis. If you have more than 10 like-minded friends and follow the guidelines I’ve laid out here, you can be sure that the member and his advisors will take your views into account, even if he does not choose to vote your way. In many instances, I’ve seen left-wing members of Congress change their vote to support less radical positions, just to keep the more vocal activists at home from growing in number. Most members are paranoid about re-election and will go to surprising lengths to defuse trouble-makers in the district.
TIPS ON WRITING EFFECTIVE LETTERS TO CONGRESS
In this Obama era, I feel the urgency to recommend that you write to your legislators on important public policy issues. Any Congressional staffer can tell you that effective letter-writing can, and ro
utinely does, turn around the vote of a member of Congress. Here are some tips on how to make YOUR next letter to Capitol Hill a more effective one:
- Write in your own words: Some people think that they should copy what others have written about a subject since their own writing style is not “good enough.” This is a serious mistake. A politician is not interested in how you write – he or he wants to know how sincerely and strongly you feel about the subject you’re writing about (and, if you’ll remember it at election time). If your opinion is strongly held, the legislator will conclude you’re following his conduct and that you’ll not vote favorably in the next election if he acts against your wishes. Don’t ever hesitate to mention that you speak for a significant portion of like-minded voters, and the club or citizen organization to which you belong. “Form” or “canned” letters, on the other hand, have an artificial ring to them and will be heeded less by the legislator. Therefore, don’t be embarrassed by your own writing style (it’s probably a lot better than you think). Always express yourself in your own words, and you’ll have a greater impact.
- Confine a letter to one topic – and be specific: Keep your letter simple. The more topics you write about, the more difficult your letter will be to follow and the less will be the impact on the reader. You should write about only one subject in a letter and be as specific as possible. Tell your Senator or Congressman EXACTLY what you want him to do.
- Be brief: Members of Congress are pulled in many directions, and live under the rule of “the urgent overwhelming the important.” Staff members opening the mail are more likely to pass along a letter to the Congressman if it is brief and concise. They will always trash verbose “tomes” that ramble on for pages. I recommend that you confine your letter to one side of an 8 ½” x 11” piece of paper, or perhaps 2 pages if your stationery is smaller. These guidelines should not be difficult to meet if you use this outline in composing your letter: first, state your position; second briefly explain the reason(s) for your position; finally, tell the legislator what you want him to do.
- Type or write clearly: Many people compose letters with excellent substance which never get read because the handwriting is so bad. Typed letters are usually the easiest to read—even with many typographical errors. If you are unable to type, write clearly.
- Be polite: I’m sure that this tip constitutes unnecessary advice to you, but unfortunately some conservatives in their vehemence, occasionally write abusive letters to their legislators. Such an approach might make the letter-writer feel better, but the impact on the recipient is not likely to be good. At best your letter is ignored. At worst, the letter will make the legislator hostile to your position. Congressional leftists, of course, are not sympathetic to our beliefs. But they too, must stand for re-election, so many will try to placate their conservative constitutes if they will not feel humiliated in doing so (this is particularly true of the current Congress, which has many new members who are largely elected on the promise of more “responsive” government). By the way, don’t be shy about using a fax or email. They work too.