Contacting Congress: All Politics is Local

Executing an advocacy campaign on Capitol Hill is as much art as it is science.  Much like a political campaign, legislative advocacy is a blend of developing the right message and targeting the right people to hear your message.  One of the keys to targeting Members of Congress and to having your message heard is making contact with only an individual’s personal representative or senator.

There are two reasons for not blanketing every Member or even every member of a particular committee.  First, on a practical level, congressional offices do not have the staff to respond to out-of-district correspondence. Many offices receive tens of thousands of correspondences in a week, including e-mail, postal mail and phone calls.  Even with interns helping sort the mail and answer phones, these offices simply don’t have the ability to respond to e-mails from outside the Member’s district or state.

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 in both chambers 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.

So, what does this mean for issue advocacy in Washington?

For advocacy organizations, this means locating passionate individuals in multiple congressional districts and states.  Then, when the organization is ready to start advocating, they can mobilize those supporters to contact their legislators, reducing the burden on the organization.  The firm where I work assists a major national advocacy organization with mobilizing activists and voters.  Through direct mail, our client targets a legislator’s district and encourages the constituents to call the office and share the organization’s message.  This tactic is very successful in motivating legislators using their base.  This principle is equally applicable to e-mail advocacy.

Just as in a political campaign, having a “ground game” in advocacy is important.  When I worked on Capitol Hill, I frequently took meetings, or sat in on them, with advocacy groups on a wide range of issues.  The most impactful, and 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 an individual’s Members’ offices. 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, that staff member 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.

Advocates should keep in mind that to make their voice heard in Washington, they must go through the people elected to listen to their voice.  In advocacy, as in most everything, it’s best to remember that all politics is local.  Members of Congress are elected by their constituents and must represent the needs of that constituency.  Their staffs are dedicated professionals and have only enough time to address the concerns of the people who elected their boss.

A portion of this blog was quoted on CQ Roll Call’s Connectivity feature.

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