Do lawmakers pay attention to constituents?

In the age of auto responders, and the emergence of e-mail as a primary means of communication, I often wonder whether writing your representative — be it legislator, congressperson or senator — does any good anymore. I wonder if they read it at all or, if they do, whether they just dismiss an opposing opinion the same way most political discourse considers opposing opinions now — if it doesn’t agree with mine, rather than consider it, demonize the opinion-holder and ignore the message as the work of Satan.

I don’t think I’ve written my representative since I wrote Sen. Ed Brooke (another Republican who represented Massachusetts back when it was possible… and that reflected on Republicans, not Massachusetts, by the way) when I was a kid asking him to do something about cleaning up the environment. I got a nice letter back — in the mail — and it at least sounded like the senator, or something that exhaled carbon dioxide, tailored the message to the one received; maybe even, you know, considered it.

It would be the cheap shot to say he paid no attention to it in the era of global warming here, but thinking back to the ’60s, we thought nothing of going to McDonald’s (they didn’t have lobbies then), sitting in our car, eating the food, and then pitching all the trash out the window and driving off. Or maybe pitching it out the window after we drove off. We don’t do that anymore. So maybe I made a difference with my letter to Ed Brooke. Who knows?

My wife occasionally writes to our state representative, with whom she rarely agrees, and usually gets back some garbagey e-mail that basically says “I’m really a great legislator, look at all the work I’m doing for you…” and then lists all of her accomplishments, but always leaves my wife asking, “um, great, you singlehandedly widened I-94 to three lanes, what about the points of the message I wrote you?”

Of course, the lawmaker apparently never read it or didn’t care enough to be the next Ed Brooke, which is too bad because if you don’t have time to listen and talk to your constituents, what are you doing in the job in the first place?

I was going to do a survey of some sort to ask currently sitting politicians when the last time was they had their mind changed by a conversation with a constituent? Now I’m thinking of doing one on when the last time is they actually read the message from and responded to one?

I’m sure as we get into the debate season, we’ll hear all the usual questions about all the usual subjects and all the usual non-answers coming back disguised as answers and everyone will leave being no more informed than they were before.

But it would be great to have a debate in which one questions was: name the last time you changed your mind after talking to a constituent?

Until then, I assume all the e-mail can be found in the parking lot at McDonald’s.

  • I have a keen interest in the CD-02 congressional race, and maintain a blog about the things John Kline has and hasn’t done as a member of Congress. While I don’t support Kline, I do my best to present the facts accurately, and I have made several attempts to get information about issues from Kline’s office.

    Since I started the blog 6 months ago, Kline’s office has a perfect track record of ignoring my inquiries. Whether I ask my questions by email or snail mail, I get no response. I have phoned his office several times and spoken with very nice staffers who assure me I’ll get a response, but I get nothing. And I’ve visited his Burnsville office once asking for campaign literature, fact sheets, ANYTHING about Kline’s stand on issues. I was told that I could leave a list of written questions and they would mail me the answers.

    Kline’s supporters occasionally write letters to the editor stating they they got this or that information from his office, so I must conclude that I’ve been identified as a non-supporter, and I’m getting shut out. Perhaps Kline has decided that if he gives me no information, I can’t give people reasons to oppose him.

    How about lack of responsiveness to his constituents?

  • Sen. Linda Higgins

    I try to answer most emails and have even conducted arguments by email on occasion.

    I have to admit, it is harder to respond when you disagree with the writer. I usually don’t respond to people who live outside my district.

    And on occasion, emails just get lost, either temporarily or (sadly) forever. During the legislative session, I regularly get about 75 emails a day on my senate account and 50 on my home account. I have a bad habit of reading an email but not responding right away, because of time constraints or simply because I’m reading it late at night and I’m too tired to compose an intelligent response.

  • I have sent a few emails to my representatives and senators over the last couple years, and I’ve always been impressed that I get a formal letter back that usually has something to do about why I wrote. Though their response doesn’t always answer my question or comment directly.

    I suggestted to Congressman Ramstad that he consider switching parties a couple months ago, believing that might trigger an individual response, but his response to that point was silent, though his letter did talk about his support of Boehner and fixing the corruption.

    I did call him last fall about the “Delay rule” vote the Republican Congressmen took when they tried to change the rule so Delay could remain majority leader even if he was indicted. I did get an honest letter a couple days later, saying he voted against the “Delay rule”

    I firmly believe that if you spend serious time composing a formal polite letter (even an email, as long it follows the formal letter writing rules) You’ll get a proper response from our elected representatives. It is disappointing and shameful to me to hear Congressman Kline does not respond to David’s inquiries.

  • Bob Collins

    Thanks for the comments, all of you. And I do understand the time pressure that legislators are under, especially this time of the year. It sounds to me, aside from the Kline experience, that a good old fashioned letter is still the best way to communicate.

    I do still have a curiosity of how much constituent e-mail or snail-mail plays in the legislative process, however, and the original question is still out there for me: does it do any good?

    I get e-mail all the time, some of it gets filtered down from on high somewhere to be responded to, but it always surprises me when I call someone or write back to someone, that I wrote or called at all because, well, what’s more important than the audience? Some people call and leave messages and I don’t call them back if I can solve their anxieties without a callback.

    I wonder how many, though, sent something or called, simply to get stuff off their chest, not to make a difference. The times that they are surprised leads me to think it’s quite often.

    So… how can we… average people… make a difference?

  • Dave Porter

    One continuing result of the “homeland security” paranoia is the separate mail-handling facility in Washington, DC. (Remember the anthrax-in-the-mail scare?) This means it takes something like two weeks for your letter to get processed and delivered to your Congressperson – way too long when something is coming up for a vote this week.