Communicating with Congress

As a politically active citizen, you may have noticed that GovTrack seems to be missing the usual one-click Contact Your Congressperson tool, instead referring you from people pages here to the home pages of official websites at the House and Senate. Yesterday, I (Josh) attended a conference in D.C. on Communicating with Congress. (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, and this goes to why I don’t provide such a tool here.

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 — e.g. personally written letters. That’s a very reasonable technique to me. (Though perhaps they should pass a resolution to up their office budgets?)

The second thing was that, as panelist Alan Rosenblatt presented, the method of triage has unintended ramifications. 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 it shouldn’t be discounted as it is today. 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. 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 Pierson 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. There are many 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.