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I had been planning to do this diary tonight and just saw that demandcaring was having the same thought here and that will cut out a good bit of what I've been wanting to put up so this will be an add-on to provide a few more details.  Go read the diary, I'll wait.

Ok, so now that we know the terms and have a general outline of what the offices look like we can talk about ways to have the most effect with your Reps.  

I've been a Legislative Assistant on the House side and now work for a Senate committee; just in case you're wondering what my particular perspective is.

Letters -- Offices get lots of letters.  Hundreds per week (not including the thousands of form letters and postcards).  The only way to deal with them is categorize them and try to respond to them in batches.  Letters expressing an opinion pro-issueX will get the pro-issueX letter.  If your letter is pro-issueX, pro-issueY, and con-issueZ you will get a cut-and-paste from the proX, proY, and antiZ.  I don't want to burst anyone's bubble but that's just the way it is, the sheer volume to be dealt with dictates this kind of treatment (it's different if your letter requests some kind of casework, that is sent to a caseworker).  The way a Member will hear about letters is if he asks "how are the letters running on issue X?"  The LC will give a rough estimate of how the letters come down.

Particularly in the House, where LA's have to write response letters in addition to their legislative duties, it can be many weeks until letters are read and dealt with.  Keep in mind, these offices are relatively small.  A typical House office has around 5 Leg staff, 1 LC, 1 Staff Assistant, a couple admin staff, maybe a utility infielder, and a couple interns.  Senate staffs are much larger but they handle a lot more constituents and issues.  Also note: letters are now nuked on the way in so anything plastic melts (so, no pictures, please) and multi-page inkjet letters often become fused together.

Phones--  Phones ring constantly.  Keep in mind the folks answering the phones are young, idealistic, and dramatically underpaid (like high teens, in one of the most expensive cities in the country).  They aren't trying to give you the runaround, they probably don't know what the bill is you are worried about and they certainly don't know their boss' position on it.  That's the job of the Legislative staff.  They will keep track of your views.  Side note: just for perspective, our office was receiving calls during the Gonzales debate in mid hundreds per day (state + DC) the tally was like 98% opposed.  Depending on the issue and the constituency offices may get numbers in the thousands.  They are also answering calls from people making appointments and looking for Leg staff so don't be surprised if they can't stay on and chat.

So should you try to get through to an LA?  This brings me to my theme for the diary:

You are lobbying, think like a lobbyist.

Lobbyists (good ones, anyway) don't think "this is what I wan't them to do for me," their approach is "here is how I can make your life easier."  By all means make your opinions known but realize your opinion alone can only really be another line on the tally sheet.  The LA's task on a given issue is to present it fairly to his boss, analyze to practical, policy, and political ramifications, make a recommendation, and write speeches and letters conveying the Member's chosen position.  Try looking at it through this prism and seeing how you can fit in.  

Do you have a personal anecdote that shows how this will affect you?  These are great, because they can sum up an issue perfectly and can also be fodder for speeches.

Are you an expert in the field?  Maybe your unique expertise lets you see through the mumbo-jumbo of the other side and you can help the LA present the issue correctly.

Do you know about some person or information that is not getting out in the MSM?  People on the Hill are information junkies.  If you really know something they probably don't they'll be interested.

You get the idea.

Don't fit into one of these categories?  Consider other means of communicating.  

Letters to the editor can be really useful.  It is assumed that every letter a paper publishes is representative of some number more that agree with it.  They also can prompt the editorial board to weigh-in on your issue.  The effect of your letter is thus magnified quite a bit.  Tip: The Press people scan the local papers looking for things of interest to the boss and any mentions of the boss.  If your letter gets published with a line like "Senator X has always been a staunch advocate for people with this problem so it is a little surprising she hasn't weighed in yet" will get your letter in the daily clips that everyone, including the Member, reads.

Phone in to call-in shows, even shudder CSPAN.  People listen to them and it's a great way get memes started.  In the House office I worked in we used to leave CSPAN on all the time (it's like watching a car wreck, you just can't turn away) and stuff seeps in.

Go to town-hall forums and listening sessions held back in the district.  Remember, when you speak you are not just trying to convince the Member in attendence you are trying to convince the audience.  You may make the greatest argument in the world but if the Member thinks it will get him unelected it's a no-go.

Finally, if you just want to chat with an LA about an issue and how it may come up, try calling her when it's recess; they'll have time to talk a bit and are generally happy to talk to constituents.

These are just a few thoughts and this is getting long.  I hope they help make people a bit more effective.

Originally posted to DCMike on Thu Feb 10, 2005 at 06:53 PM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  One more thing (4.00)
    demandcaring mentioned Committee staff in his diary.  Committee staff work for the Chairman (majority staff) or Ranking Member (minority staff) of the Committee and therefor the constituents of that member are the constituents they worry about.  That said, there's not much point in trying to get through to them just to express your opinion.  They are enmeshed in the details of bill drafting and so are not the ones keeping track of public opinion.
    •  _her_ diary ;-) (none)
      Thanks for the LA perspective!  I agree that there should be a few discussions about this --- this is definitely knowledge that should be dispersed through the community, and especially this community.

      Oh, and yeah, what DCMike said, about committee staff.  I wasn't very clear.

  •  Thanks, Mike (none)
    These "how-to" diaries should really find their way into the dKosopedia!
  •  One thing I've found to be useful... (none)
    I have a contact in Nancy Pelosi's office :)
  •  When I worked for a state (none)
    Ways and Means Committee the tally mark thing really hammered home the point that calls equal tallies - nothing more (and nothing less).  Being that this was a small state senate, I suppose that things are a lot more tallied-marked in Congress.  

    I also remember how annoyed staff were when we got phone attacked.  And since staff really drive the agenda in a lot of ways - the annoyance rarely paid off.  This would be especially true if a friend phone bombed us.  

    Protests were another thing - generally respected, since they showed interest in a cause without desrupting our work. But since the real power was in deciding who was going to hold the partisan staff positions (I think in Congress all staff are partisan, even committee staff - but I am not sure) and who was on what committee, the protest did little more than to raise some awareness by those not already assigned an issue, and to make those with opinions on the issue have a stronger opinion - one way or the other.

    Most interesting is how lobbyists were extensions of staff --- the really good ones could be trusted to assist.  Things at the state level are a lot smaller, everyone knows everyone.  But the lobbyists were all a pretty sound bunch - and were like the only experienced "staff" (outside of the few large committees), since most staff were young campaign aides just starting up the political ladder - or, in my case, getting knocked off.

    Please keep this series going.

  •  MoveOn (none)
    i had a friend who worked in Jan Schakowsky's office and she told me how pissed she used to get when MoveOn would send a blast email and tell everyone to call in on their issue of the day (the Iraq war when she was there). she said thus, she had to waste a whole morning/afternoon answering these calls when she could have been doing other work. it wasn't that she didn't appreciate the calls, it was mostly that Jan is as progressive as it gets and was always going to be with the caller, so why call and use up her time? anyways, she said the whole office used to dread those MoveOn days. OTOH, it sure does let people know what you're thinking!
  •  Email does work -- here's how (none)
    Great post.  Email does work.  The key thing to remember about email, mail, faxes and calls is that you're trying to get the issue on the Senator's or Rep's office's radar and to force them to take an official position (hopefully to your liking) on the issue in question.  If they get a certain volume of responses, they have to generate a response.  Here's how it works:

    Certain quantify of correspondence comes in -- say more than 20 letters, 100 emails etc. (I've heard that as little as 20 emails can do this but my hill experience was just at the start of email).  

    The Legislative Correspondent notes this, and realizes that they need to create another issue form letter (this is how they deal with the volume of correspondence they get, they write 100s of form responses for every issue).  For issues that aren't covered by forms, they write individual responses which don't get the same level of attention from senior staff as the form responses.  They also -- for the dreaded wacky letters -- might just send a general form response " thanks so much for your interest in issue X, I will certainly take your views into consideration."

    The form response is reviewed by the appropriate Legislative Assistant (sometimes even the Legislative Director) to ensure it accurately reflects the Senator/Reps decision.  Sometimes even the Senator or Rep might see these.

    The LC takes the form response and uses it to respond to future emails.  

    So, as you can see, the goal is to force them to generate an official response and then think about your issue.  

    It is a different thing -- altogether -- for influencing a vote already on the radar.  You'll need to generate real volume to get noticed.  These offices to keep track of the number of constituent response pro or against.  Some Senators/Reps will cite constituent contact in pros or cons for a vote (they don't care about) but it takes pretty good volume to actually use mail to change a position -- it is best for putting an issue on the office's radar and forcing them to take a position that you can then lobby on

    •  Opposite approach (none)
      What if you do like Billionaries For Bush and send in rediculous parodies.  Like if you are pro-A then send in hundred of insane wouldn't-want-to-be-associated-with you letters.  Like, I'm a racist and I agree 100%! (but obviously more subtle).

      Or how about the most hilarious image or poster they ever saw and it gets passed around the office???  Does this work?

      •  If there is a return address (none)
        in the Senator or Rep's state/district, then these letters will get sorted just like any other correspondence.  It depends on the LC as to whether the sarcasm is detected or responded to appropriately. :-)  If the return address is absent or out of state/district, the letters will likely be tossed.  The probability of the letters getting passed around the office is low, because most people in the office have other things to be doing and, while funny, such letters would be nowhere near as outlandish as some of the stuff that gets sent in.  
  •  For the current "This Week in Fascism" (none)
         I used this diary in my most recent "This Week in Fascism" Please come take a look and le t me know what you think. Please keep in mind that more then likely I recommended your diary. Hint! Hint!

              There is hope! Here are some articles on a way to fight back.

         Demand Caring gave us an excellent How to be effective about contacting your senator: What Really Happens When You Call? That prompted DC Mike to place his diary on Effectively Talking to the Hill 102 earlier then he had intended. The bottom line advice is to phone your Representative often. Get to know who works on what in the office. Get a personal rapport with an aide during recess. Jonathan added How to contact the government: another perspective which concentrates on contacting government agencies.

    "It's about the accountability, stupid." Thomas Davis 2005

    by Tomtech on Sun Feb 13, 2005 at 07:35:32 PM PST

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