Talking to Congress: How to be heard by government
Conflict can make for strange bedfellows. During World War II western Allied powers worked with the Soviet Union to bring down the Nazis, knowing full well that the Soviets would be the next threat. But a part of wisdom is separating the motives and actions of your enemies from their strategies. If their strategy works, and can be aligned with your ethics, use it.
The Tea Party was highly successful in disrupting the US government under the Obama administration by influencing the national debate and the behavior of national policymakers. To their credit, they thought thoroughly about advocacy tactics, as the leaked “Town Hall Action Memo” demonstrates.
The following draws on both research and the experiences of former congressional staffers to illustrate the strengths of the Tea Party movement and to provide lessons to leverage members of Congress (MoCs) in the fight against Trump’s racism, authoritarianism, and corruption.
In this article you’ll learn:
- How to effectively talk to your representatives
- How to get their contact information
- The best method(s) of contacting them
The Tea Party’s two key strategic choices
The Tea Party’s success came down to two critical strategic elements:
1. They were locally focused. The Tea Party started as an organic movement built on small local groups of dedicated conservatives. Yes, they received some support/coordination from above, but fundamentally all the hubbub was caused by a relatively small number of conservatives working together.
- Groups started as disaffected conservatives talking to each other online. In response to the 2008 bank bailouts and President Obama’s election, groups began forming to discuss their anger and what could be done. They eventually realized that the locally based discussion groups themselves could be a powerful tool.
- Groups were small, local, and dedicated. Tea Party groups could be fewer than 10 people, but they were highly localized, and they dedicated significant personal time and resources. Members communicated with each other regularly, tracked developments in Washington, and coordinated advocacy efforts together.
- Groups were relatively few in number. The Tea Party was not hundreds of thousands of people spending every waking hour focused on advocacy. Rather, the efforts were somewhat modest. Only 1 in 5 self-identified Tea Partiers contributed money or attended events. On any given day in 2009 or 2010, only 20 local events — meetings, trainings, town halls, etc. — were scheduled nationwide. In short, a relatively small number of groups were having a big impact on the national debate.
|The Tea Party Strategy Was Strong||The Tea Party Tactics Were Wrong|
|by organising to block progressive reform under President Obama.
These were real, tangible results by a group that represented only a small portion of Americans.
|they scapegoated, and their behavior was often horrible.
We are better than this. We are the majority, and we don’t need petty scare tactics to win.
2. They were almost purely defensive. The Tea Party focused on saying NO to (MoCs) on their home turf. While the Tea Party activists were united by a core set of shared beliefs, they actively avoided developing their own policy agenda. Instead, they had an extraordinary clarity of purpose, united in opposition to President Obama. They didn’t accept concessions and treated weak Republicans as traitors.
- Groups focused on defence, not policy development. In response to the 2008 bank bailouts and President Obama’s election, groups began forming to discuss their anger and what could be done. They eventually realised that the locally based discussion groups themselves could be a powerful tool.
- Groups rejected concessions to Democrats and targeted weak Republicans. Tea Partiers viewed concessions to Democrats as betrayal. This limited their ability to negotiate, but they didn’t care. Instead they focused on scaring congressional Democrats and keeping Republicans honest. As a result, few Republicans spoke against the Tea Party for fear of attracting blowback.
- Groups focused on local congressional representation. Tea Partiers primarily applied this defensive strategy by pressuring their own local MoCs. This meant demanding that their Representatives and Senators be their voice of opposition on Capitol Hill. At a tactical level, the Tea Party had several replicable practices, including:
- Coordinating blanket calling of congressional offices at key moments
- Showing up to the MoC’s town hall meetings and demanding answers
- Showing up to the MoC’s office and demanding a meeting
Using these lessons to fight the Trump agenda
For the next two years, Donald Trump and congressional Republicans will control the federal government, but they will depend on just about every MoC to actually get laws passed. Those MoCs care much more about getting reelected than they care about any specific issue. By adopting a defensive strategy that pressures MoCs, we can achieve the following goals:
- Stall the Trump agenda by forcing them to redirect energy away from their priorities. Congressional offices have limited time and limited people. A day that they spend worrying about you is a day that they’re not ending Medicare, privatising public schools, or preparing a Muslim registry.
- Sap Representatives’ will to support or drive reactionary change. If you do this right, you will have an outsized impact. Every time your MoC signs on to a bill, takes a position, or makes a statement, a little part of his or her mind will be thinking: “How am I going to explain this to the angry constituents who keep showing up at my events and demanding answers?”
- Reaffirm the illegitimacy of the Trump agenda. The hard truth is that Trump, McConnell, and Ryan will have the votes to cause some damage. But by objecting as loudly and powerfully as possible, and by centering the voices of those who are most affected by their agenda, you can ensure that people understand exactly how bad these laws are from the very start — priming the ground for the 2018 midterms and their repeal when Democrats retake power.
How to effectively talk to your representatives
What can one person possibly do to sway a representative’s action? Why would they care what you think?
It’s all about reelection, reelection, reelection
To influence your own MoC, you have to understand one thing: every House member runs for office every two years and every Senator runs for election every six years. Functionally speaking, MoCs are always either running for office or getting ready for their next election — a fact that shapes everything they do.
To be clear, this does not mean that your MoC is cynical and unprincipled. The vast majority of people in Congress believe in their ideals and care deeply about representing their constituents and having a positive impact. But they also know that if they want to make change, they need to stay in office.
This constant reelection pressure means that MoCs are enormously sensitive to their image in the district or state, and they will work very hard to avoid signs of public dissent or disapproval. What every MoC wants — regardless of party — is for his or her constituents to agree with the following narrative:
My MoC cares about me, shares my values, and is working hard for me.
— What every MoC wants their constituents to think
What Does an MoC’s Office Do, and Why?
An MoC’s office is composed of roughly 15-25 staff for House offices and 60-70 for Senate offices, spread across a D.C. office and one or several district offices. MoC offices perform the following functions:
Provide constituent services. Staff connect with both individual constituents and local organizations, serving as a link to and an advocate within the federal government on issues such as visas, grant applications, and public benefits.
Communicate with constituents directly. Staff take calls, track constituent messages, and write letters to stay in touch with constituents’ priorities, follow up on specific policy issues that constituents have expressed concern about, and reinforce the message that they are listening.
Meet with constituents. MoCs and staff meet with constituents to learn about local priorities and build connections.
Seek and create positive press. Staff try to shape press coverage and public information to create a favorable image for the MoC.
Host and attend events in district. Representatives host and attend events in the district to connect with constituents, understand their priorities, and get good local press.
Actual legislating. MoCs and staff decide their policy positions, develop and sponsor bills, and take votes based on a combination of their own beliefs, pressure from leadership/lobbyists, and pressure from their constituents.
What Your MoC Cares About
When it comes to constituent interactions, MoCs care about things that make them look good, responsive, and hardworking to the people of their district. In practice, that means that they care about some things very much, and other things very little:
What Your MoC is Thinking: Good Outcome vs. Bad Outcome
To make this a bit more concrete and show where advocacy comes in, below are some examples of actions that a MoC might take, what they’re hoping to see happen as a result, and what they really don’t want to see happen. Some MoCs will go to great lengths to avoid bad outcomes — even as far as changing their positions or public statements.
How to contact your house representative
This is fairly simple – just text your ZIP code to 520-200-2223. You’ll get a text back with federal and state representatives’ contact info within seconds!
The best method(s) of contacting representatives
Notice the contact information above is not facebook pages or mailing addresses or email addresses; it’s phone numbers. “Tweeting or writing on Facebook is largely ineffective”, writes Emily Ellsworth, who worked in Congress for 6 years. “I never looked at those comments except to remove the harassing ones. writing a letter to the district office (state) is better than sending an email or writing a letter to DC.”
“But”, she emphasises, “the most effective thing is to actually call them on the phone. At their district (state) office. They have to talk to you there.”
The office Emily worked for represented a half of a million people. It was impossible to read and respond to every letter and email received. “This was something in particular that I cared about as a staffer and worked very hard on, but the sheer volume of emails is overwhelming,” she writes. “So, we batched them with computer algorithms and sent out form letters based on topic and position. Regardless of method received.”
But phone calls! “That was a thing that shook up our office from time. One time, a radio host gave out our district office phone number on air,” she remembers. “He was against our immigration policy and told our constituents to call. And they did. All. Day. Long. All I did all day was answer phones.”
It was exhausting, and her bosses heard about it. The representative’s office had discussions because of that call to action. “If we started getting a pattern of calls, I called up our DC office and asked if they were getting the same calls and we talked.”
You call, they listen.