Communicating with Congress Conference

One aspect of transparency that we didn’t touch on in our report was the ability of the public to contact Members of Congress. Yesterday the well-respected Congressional Management Foundation hosted a conference on Communicating with Congress, and some OHP regulars were in attendance (John Wonderlich, Rob Pierson, and Daniel Bennett were among the panelists — btw, thanks John and esp. Daniel for the plugs for GovTrack). I was pretty sick yesterday, esp. by the end of the conference, and was probably fairly incoherent to those I talked to after.

Two things that I learned stood out:

First, congressional offices are ridiculously overloaded with communication with the public. 313 million emails came into Congress in 2006 (iirc), which if you do the math (because I forget if anyone gave the exact number) is in the ballpark of 300-2000 emails per office per day. And given the current office budgets allowing for just a few people (in the House) to be dedicated to dealing with communications like that, there is no way, as passionate as they are about it (which also became quite evidence both from the staffer panelists and those that were in the audience), for them to respond to all communications. As a result, what we see on the outside — web forms, sometimes CAPTCHAs, limiting communication to constituents, and other barriers, are a means for them to triage the bombardment of letters they get. If they can’t deal with it all, they prioritize the letters that the writer took the most effort to create. That’s very reasonable to me.

However, what was not reasonable was that if Members sincerely want to respond to every incoming letter (one staffer told a story of how Sen. Frist asked his staff to reply to every letter, and the staffers looked back in puzzlement), and given that more staff is needed to do that (staff sizes haven’t increased in 30 years), then the Members should be writing resolutions to increase their budget to make that possible. Congress can’t blame the need to triage on budgetary restrictions — they decide the budget, after all.

The second thing was that, as panelist Alan Rosenblatt presented, the method of triage has unintended ramifications — that barriers to entry can be seen as an insult to those to care but don’t have time to write a carefully crafted letter themselves and instead rely on the research of advocacy organizations to make his point (by joining in on a letter-writing campaign, with a pre-written letter). He put the point quite well: Members of Congress rely on their staffers to do research and craft public statements, and in the same way, Americans rely on advocacy groups to do research and craft letters to politicians. There’s nothing wrong, he said, with sending a pre-written letter. And as another panelist showed, less than 10% (he later said 20%+ as a guess, but the numbers on the slide indicated otherwise) of those who participate in a letter-writing campaign modify a pre-written letter.

I got in under the wire with the last question of the day, which went effectively unanswered (though Daniel tried). I should have started with this: There seem to be three ways to deal with the problem of overloaded communications staffers (”LC”s?). One way is to increase the barriers to communication so they get fewer letters, eliminating the least important ones (as they see it). Another way is to streamline the process, which goes along the lines of what Rob suggested for a computerized, standardized (XML) letter submission format. But there is a third way, which is what I suggested, which is looking at other forms of communication entirely, to complement individual letter writing, that deal with more constituents at once. Clearly, to the extent that it makes any sense at all, dealing with communications that are sent collectively by citizens is more efficient than dealing with the same letter sent individually. Currently, petitions (a basic form of an aggregated communication) that Members receive have no weight, according to one staffer I asked. Presumably this is because (1) it is too easy to sign a petition to be meaningful (again, as they see it), and (2) it is impossible for Member offices to verify who signed the petition. At the least, (2) is something solvable with technology. But there are many other forms of many-to-one, aggregated communication, and I would sincerely like to know more about what Members think of those methods and whether the problems with those methods are technologically addressable.

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