Communicating With Congress: How To

The Congressional Management Foundation, a nonprofit that provides management training and technical assistance to Congressional offices, has released the first of four reports on its study of electronic communication between constituents and their members of Congress.

What caught my eye (I’m mostly lifting from their text here):

  • Half of congressional staff surveyed believe identical form communications are not sent with constituents’ knowledge or consent. [Note: As far as I could tell from the report, this seems to have spread from incidents in a few offices and turned into a general suspicion.]
  • Nearly all staff surveyed (96%) reported that if their Member of Congress had not arrived at a firm decision, individualized postal letters would have at least some influence on the Member’s decision, and 94% believed individualized e-mail messages would have at least some influence. 65% indicated that form postal letters have at least some influence; the analogous figure was 63% for form e-mail messages.
  • Some Senate staff reported that their offices “do not count or respond to” some form communications – in essence, ignoring the messages altogether.

I had always assumed that letters sent through mass e-mail campaigns were at least being counted as a Yes or No on the topic. Maybe not so much, although the study warns that the data on that response might be a little shaky. Also, it looks better on the House side. But I still feel like I might have to put in a little more effort on the letter-writing front if I’m going to keep congratulating myself for having written at all.

Another thing I’ve always wondered about: my elected officials have already made up their minds about most of the issues they’ll be voting on, which may or may not be good for me depending on which representative we’re talking about. So do my communications have an impact? McCaul’s office staff said (during the Social Security visit) that if he was going to take a position, he needed to have a binder full of letters from constituents that support that decision. So am I sending letters just in case?

  • Focus group participants indicated that constituent communications were particularly helpful or influential early on in a decision-making process, when Members and staff are researching and developing policy positions.
  • All postal mail to government agencies in Washington, D.C. undergoes a testing and decontamination process to protect employees from anthrax and other toxic substances. This delays postal mail by one week or more.

Although they want email early on and they want personalized communications, postal mail is a very slow way of getting information to the offices! I’m a little unclear how I would efficiently get information about when the research phase is for particular decisions.

  • However, despite these frustrations, congressional staff believe that the Internet and e-mail have provided some clear public benefits that are encouraging for our democracy. They view constituents as more informed, Members as more responsive, and citizens as more engaged in the public policy process as a result of Internet and e-mail.

So, keep trying.

This last bit reminded me very much of LGRL’s last call-in campaign on the Talton amendment prohibiting gay/bisexual foster parents:

Members are sometimes subject to grassroots campaigns encouraging them to support legislation of which they are sponsors or co-sponsors. Other times, Members are scolded for supporting a position that they clearly state on their Web sites they do not support. In the eyes of Members and staff, this suggests that the grassroots organization generating the messages have misrepresented the Member’s position to their constituents.

LGRL simply instructed people to call everyone on the committee and say they were opposed to the amendment, without noting that Sen. Jane Nelson had already publicly taken a stand against the amendment, Naishtat would never support it, etc. One of the staffers I spoke with at an anti-amendment office begged me to tell people to stop calling, because they were being flooded. Talton was also on the committee list, and there were no special instructions on that call!

So I’ll be interested to see the next few reports in this series and what additional recommendations are made for both Congressional offices and grassroots campaign folks. I’ll keep y’all posted.