Let me first start with a disclaimer --- I haven't been on the Hill in coming up on 5 years, so some of what I have to say may be dated (as to Senate office treatments of emails and such), but I invite any Kossacks (That is the right term, yes? I'm new here.) who have more recent experience to please contribute their observations. That said, I thought I'd offer my 2 cents about what really happens when people contact a Senate office --- I spent the better part of a year answering the phones in the D.C. office of a prominent Democrat from a small state.
Now, before you get all worked up about how your Senator doesn't hang on every word you say and immediately change his/her opinion to mirror yours when you call, please keep in mind that no matter how right(eous? Or should it be "how left"?) you are, your "Democratic" Senator is not necessarily a worthless piece of DINO trash (unless you're from CT, and I'm not talking about Dodd). Your Senator is beholden to at the very least, 700,000 people, and at the most, tens of millions. Granted, your enlightenment and engagement in the political process should and do count for something, but keep in mind that your individual constituency accounts for 0.000285%, or less, of the voters in your state. Yes, you care, and that counts. But that doesn't make you the Senator's personal trusted advisor on anything. And if you aren't even from the state the Senator represents (a constituent), the most you should expect is a polite voice on the other end of the phone.
That said, before you go sink back into the well of impotence and frustration that for so long has characterized our poor, disheartened party, some good news: many voices are louder than one. And having been on the other end of those phones, and from tales of wait times and busy signals in Washington, I can safely say that last week there were quite a few voices being heard. (go dkos!) But what really happens when you call?
First, anatomy of a Senator's office, and then - further steps you can take to have an impact. (Skip to the last few paragraphs if you just want advice without understanding the system. ;-) I won't hold it against you; this thing got a little long.)
From the bottom up, here's how a D.C. Senate office works:
- Interns - unpaid college students, usually. Aspire to careers in government. Various levels of competence - menial administrative tasks are the meat and potatoes of this job (including autopenning [signing] all the nice letters senators send back to constituents). Occasionally, though, they might be trusted with picking up a phone.
- Staff Assistants - Recent college grad. This is the job that I had, also known as the `front lines'. Stationed in the front of the public office, this job (one or two people in our office) consists in the main of greeting visitors and loonies who walk in off the street, answering phones and opening mail (though uncommonly bright interns can often be trained to do the last on a regular basis). Sorting faxes and email is also part of this job. Oh yeah, and keeping office supplies stocked --- how many different kinds of pens do we need? One for each staff member, of course.
- Legislative Correspondents (LCs) - Recent college grad. The bulk of this job is writing the nice letters that senators send back to constituents. Emails, phone messages, faxes, and letters are all routed to them by the Staff Assistants. There are usually a few LCs, and issues are divided between them. They research the senator's position, find supporting evidence, and then write response letters, which are sent to the interns to sign. They report to the LAs with a breakdown of constituent feelings on the issues.
- Legislative Assistants (LAs) - Usually an experienced person with qualifications other than a bachelor's, oftentimes in a specific field. This is where my knowledge of how the constituents's desires are communicated becomes a little vague. The LAs are responsible for supplying the senator with information on the issues and briefing them before an upcoming vote. Each LA covers a subset of issues (e.g. heath care, veterans' affairs, education). Presumably, what constituents are feeling as described by the LCs counts for something in these briefings, but is probably not the main consideration.
- Senator - Yes, they're slimy. Of course they are. Imagine the ecto-shield you'd have to erect around yourself if you spent 20 years with a job description that included having polite political discussions with the likes of Rick Santorum on a daily basis. The point isn't "is my senator a slimeball or not?" it's "do I agree with them or not?" and, in today's world, "do they have a spine or not?"
Are all ways to contact the office created equal? When I was there, no. Email was the least effective because a lot of crap used to get emailed in and sifting through it for genuine constituent letters was not an efficient or a high priority job. Form letter emails are better than nothing, but not much. Things may have changed for the better, here, however, so I will defer to anyone who knows more. Faxes, letters, and phone calls are treated about equally, but if you want your opinion to get farther than the Staff Assistants, you better be a constituent, and LEAVE YOUR ADDRESS. If you don't do the latter, you will be treated as a non-constituent (i.e. ignored). Emailing or calling multiple times in a short time frame about the same issue (<1week or so) is not likely to be weighted more heavily than calling once. However, if you feel like you forgot to say something, it won't hurt to call again.
What else can you do? Well, the first rule is obviously Be A Constituent. If you're feeling persistent, I advise asking for the LA who deals with your-favorite-issue when you call, and cut out the middle man. This is not a strategy that will work five hours before an important vote, because they won't have time to talk to you. But, if you call repeatedly and ask for that LA (find out their name from the front office), and YOU ARE A CONSTITUENT, then they will eventually talk to you - persistence IS rewarded. But expect to have to call multiple times. Calling on behalf of an organization (i.e. a group of people larger than yourself, especially one based in the senator's state) will also help you get heard. Letters and calls from organizations get routed directly to the LA as a matter of course, though repeated calls may still be necessary depending on the schedule of the LA and the clout of the organization.
Okay, that's what I've got. Glad there's a forum out there in which to disseminate this information. Hope that helps someone understand and work within the system a little bit better. The important thing to remember is that voting in elections and calling your elected officials when you feel really strongly about something is only just a little better than the minimum civic duty in a functioning democracy. You want more influence? Get involved in other ways. (BTW, mad props to SusanG and the gang for being involved in other, big ways.)
If anyone else wants to comment on how it works in a different office, or a Representative's office (way fewer constituents on average... If you're not in DE or WY or something.), please jump in.
Thanks! Wow, verbose, eh? Sorry...