Why Only Email Your Representative? An Insider Perspective
Our recent post on tips for emailing Congress received a lot of interest, particularly outside the Beltway. Several people who left comments were surprised by the advice to contact only one’s personal elected representatives. To clarify why that’s a good strategy to follow, I reached out to folks with experience working in busy congressional offices for a better explanation. Below is advice from former Capitol Hill staffer and political strategist Travis N. Taylor.
During my time managing a congressional mail program, it was regular practice to screen mail and phone calls based on the person’s residence. If they didn’t live in my boss’ district, their correspondence didn’t make it past me, and responding to our constituents kept me plenty busy. Only the concerns and opinions of our constituents were passed up the hierarchy and stood a chance of reaching the boss’ desk.
A second reason for contacting only an individual’s personal representatives stems from a representative-democratic theory. Members of Congress are elected from explicit geographic confines and represent a specific constituency. They are duty-bound to the people back home who cast their ballots for (and against) them. Constituents expect – and deserve – superior constituent service; they expect to be heard by their representative. Thus, members don’t have an interest in representing the opinions of people from outside their district or state.
Just as in a political campaign, having a “ground game” in advocacy is important. When I worked on Capitol Hill, I frequently took or sat in on meetings with advocacy groups on a wide range of issues. The ones that received the most attention from the senior staff and our boss were the ones who brought along someone from our district or at least from our state. These organizations understood that their message rang louder coming from the mouth of a constituent.
For constituents, it is important to build a rapport with their member’s office. Constituents should find out which staff member in the office handles the policy for their issue. Then the constituent can share their opinions and thoughts with that staff member. If citizens build a relationship with the congressional staffer, he or she will be more likely to remember the constituent when their particular issue comes up. Moreover, members are known for lobbying one another. When citizens help drive an issue with their individual representatives, chances are members will share their position with their colleagues. Because members are talking to their peers about the constituent’s issue and bearing the burden for the constituent, there is no need for an individual to contact other members.