Friday, July 22, 2011

Make Your Voice Heard - Communicating With Your Representative 101

Many political pundits and leaders encourage grassroots activism by sounding the alarm about a hot-button issue and adjuring interested parties to "Contact your reps!" and "Burn up those phone lines!" which is a great idea as far as it goes. The problem is that such short-term efforts to mobilize a response can fall short of the larger goal, which should be to have a well-informed populace building a strong relationship of accountability with their elected representatives.

I once worked as an intern at a State Capitol. I know from personal experience that legislators have interns manning the phones, especially when controversial issues come up, for the sole purpose of answering the phone, listening patiently to the constituent share his/her opinion, and putting checkmarks on a list. The running tally of "support/oppose" is reviewed each day in staff meetings and can ultimately influence policy decisions. 

But it's not enough to just swamp the phones with an avalanche of impassioned tirades; we have to clearly articulate our opinion, which takes time, but proves that we take our representatives' representation of us seriously. These people who represent us need to know that we're not just a mob army responding to some talking points from talk radio, whose interest in the matter will die down as soon as the news cycle moves on to another topic. They must comprehend that we are concerned and thoughtful constituents who deserve to be listened to, because we have done our homework and we are paying close attention.

My friends, this takes work. It takes effort. Getting truly involved requires more time and mental energy than merely clicking on an online poll, signing a pledge, forwarding an email, copying and pasting text, or leaving a message on an answering machine. There are no substitutes or shortcuts to seeking out the truth for oneself and formulating one's own independent opinion, but I hope to provide inspiration and encouragement for all good citizens willing to express their enthusiasm and beliefs in a practical and effective fashion.

To that end, I've compiled a short list of what I believe makes for an effective contact with an elected official, along with an example of a real letter I sent to my congressman.

* Make it personal. Start off by establishing your credibility with a personal reference (I voted for you, I was at this rally, I emailed you last year on this issue, etc.) Many legislative offices have caller ID now, and many online contact forms require you to enter your zip code to verify that you are from the right district. In this case, I referenced an email from a previous communication.
* Do your homework. Make sure they know that you are beyond talking points.
* Express support. If possible, show appreciation for their efforts. No one likes to be yelled at, even politicians.
* Explain your opinion. Don't be afraid to remind them that they are your representative and thus beholden to represent you.
* Request feedback. Expect an answer. Your representative works for you. Your tax dollars pay their salary.
* Follow up. Share your opinion with others. Explain your research and your reasoning, encourage friends to do their own research and come to their own conclusions, and suggest that they contact their representative also.

Debt ceiling negotiations, HR 421

Dear Representative Woodall,

Thank you for your letter today stating your position on the current debt crisis. I appreciate your response and I agree with the essence of what you say regarding our obligation to service our debt. I researched HR 421, which you reference, and I believe that that would have been an excellent plan to have in place in time for these ongoing debt talks. Unfortunately, I see that that bill got buried in committee, as no doubt the Democrats did not want to be having the discussion of which spending must be prioritized, thus allowing our president to make threats about withholding social security payments.

My frustration lies with the messaging of the Republican leadership. John Boehner is the Speaker of the House. Why is he not speaking out on this forcefully? He needs to highlight your bill again and again, and point out that Obama's threats would not carry weight if simple, common-sense bills such as HR 421 had been allowed to proceed. You need to articulate your message and get this out there on national TV. If Speaker Boehner does not champion these bills and use his bully pulpit to draw attention to your (meaning the Republicans' in general) attempted accomplishments, then writing these bills and resolutions is nothing more than an empty token.

Please understand that I sympathize greatly with your position, struggling to reconcile your obligations to listen to and honor the demands of your constituents with the reality that pragmatism will get the job done. I recognize the difference between pragmatism and compromise. While I believe that the CC&B was a worthy piece of legislation, the reality that we don't really have the time or the messaging right now to negotiate a balanced budget amendment leads me to fear that the House has been involved in grandstanding and empty gestures. John Boehner's comment on Rush Limbaugh's show today about pursuing a fallback plan confirms this notion.

Here's a good fallback plan that will satisfy most reasonable voters who hitherto would have insisted that raising the debt ceiling was unthinkable; call it the Cut & Breathe plan if you like. How much "unspent" money is left from TARP or the stimulus? I know some was being held back as a slush fund, presumably to be unleashed before next election. Call it out. Call out any remnants of Obama's pet programs in the discretionary budget that haven't already been spent. Write a simple bill, right now, cutting that, and raising the debt ceiling by that much. That will give you breathing room to negotiate further cuts, while demonstrating to the American people that you are being serious about making genuine, real-time budget cuts.

That's it. The general populace will understand and approve this, and the president will veto this at his peril.

Please read the letter I sent to Senator Saxby Chambliss this morning. I will be sharing this message with others to illustrate the importance of keeping thoroughly informed as well as to reassure our elected representatives that we are paying attention and that we will have your back as long as you do the right thing. Thank you again for your efforts on our behalf.


Concerned Citizen

Thursday, July 21, 2011

An Open Letter to Senator Saxby Chambliss on the "Gang of Six" Plan

Dear Senator Chambliss,

I am a dedicated supporter of yours, having voted for you and worked hard as a volunteer on your run-off campaign. I am also a thoughtful constituent who researches the issues and gives my honest opinion of how I expect my representatives to represent me. I say all that to give context to my remarks, which are not a result of any off-the-cuff response to media hysteria but are my studied opinion of how you should proceed. I’ve worked as a legislative aide in a State House, so I understand how the office can be swamped with calls when a controversial issue comes up, especially when it draws such a frenzy of media attention. Please listen carefully and respond to my opinion and don’t just put a checkmark on the “Hates the Gang of Six plan” box. 

Last week I sent you an email imploring you to hold firm on the debt ceiling and assuring you that your constituents support fiscal responsibility. I still believe that you have the overwhelming support of the American people, but I understand that political realities dictate certain concessions. 

While I do believe that the Republicans could potentially hold firm and not raise the debt ceiling and still maintain the support of the popular opinion (Obama does not have the favorability ratings to sustain a prolonged battle, the media are already experiencing fatigue over his childish tantrums, and alternative media have grown to be such a powerful force that there is no longer one dominating narrative framing the discussion as Evil Republicans vs. Reasonable Democrats), I also believe that most people (especially your Tea Party constituency, who are the strongest opponents of any compromise) will be willing to accept a certain level of pragmatism IF you can explain yourself clearly and succinctly.

I read through the transcripts of your interview with Martha Zoller yesterday, and I am impressed with and completely understand what you are trying to accomplish here. You strive to remain true to your values and your constituents while facing the reality that you have to work with the cards you’ve been dealt.

The bill that passed the House this week is a great example of an exercise in futility: I would have heralded it as a brilliant step, offering as it does modest concessions on raising the debt ceiling as a realistic acknowledgement of the political reality that Obama threatens default (which in itself ought to be called out as economic terrorism) and requiring actual real-time spending cuts instead of ten-year “smoke and mirrors” promises, if it hadn’t involved the constitutional amendment to balance the budget. A balanced budget amendment is imperative, but this is not the time to be negotiating that, with our president threatening to withhold Social Security checks as the first item to be cut as long as we do not give him what he wants.

It seems to me that the House has simply decided to make a rhetorical gesture of dying on their sword to appease their base. So I can understand that you’re trying to accomplish something that will actually succeed, and make it as palatable as possible to your constituency. I applaud you for your months of effort to craft a bipartisan approach. You are the voice of reason.

The problem is that it has become increasingly apparent that there is no compromise between what President Obama wants, and what the majority of the American people want. You must understand that, and clearly explain it to your colleagues and constituents in a way that everyone can understand and agree with. Get out your little Venn Diagrams and demonstrate that whatever Obama will accept is not acceptable to the American people.

The farthest limits of our patience have been tried with the realization that we will have to raise the debt ceiling yet again, but we want it tied down to real spending cuts, and kept to a modest level so that this issue is forced to the front again and again. That’s all.

That’s a reasonable compromise, and one that you can make a case for to your constituents. Give us six months of breathing room, and let the next election center around the issue of a true resolution to the budget crisis by making the most of the time you’ve bought with the debt ceiling increase. Without the immediate specter of default overshadowing the debate, let President Obama show us how to eat our peas by pressing him every day to showcase the spending cuts he’s actually willing to make.

Please respond quickly with your answer. I’m going to be making this point publicly, and I’d like to know that you’re listening to your constituents’ concerns just as surely as I want you to know that I am listening to you. Please keep us informed. We’ll keep you honest.


Concerned Citizen

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Ambushed by CNN

Last night I attended the premiere of The Undefeated, a new documentary that sheds light on the political career of Governor Sarah Palin. While at the theater, I had the pleasure of shaking the hand of Steve Bannon, the film’s director. I also interacted with a crew from CNN who were covering the event.

Now, I had assumed that the media would be there covering the story surrounding the opening of this film, reporting on such facts as the attendance (sold-out), the mood of the audience (enthusiastic), and the comments from the viewers (highly impressed and supportive, as far as I heard). Silly me. It seems that this crew attended the event with a story already written, and showed up just to collect the footnotes for their piece of investigative journaling.

My part in the story begins when I ducked out of the theater into the hallway amidst another round of rousing applause from the audience, cheering one of Sarah Palin’s bold speeches. I saw a reporter standing nearby with a camera, and I remarked, “It’s too bad you probably can’t take a camera in there for copyright reasons, because there is so much energy in there. I wish you could capture it on camera.”

He asked me whether I was involved in the film’s making, and I told him no, I was just a supporter of Sarah Palin who wanted to learn more about her career. He then asked me if I would like to share my opinion about the film, and I agreed. After all, I am a supporter of Sarah Palin's, I did enjoy the movie, I did think it was insightful and informative, and I’d be happy to share that opinion on camera.

He started off by asking me if I was a fan of Barack Obama’s, to which I honestly replied, “Not so much.”

He asked me whether I thought the movie was accurate, whether it represented truth. I said honestly that I believed it was accurate and truthful. He pressed the issue: “Really? Those pictures of cigar-filled back rooms? You think that really happened? The guns and knives? Were there people actually carrying guns and knives?”

I answered that I believed those scenes were dramatized, and merely representative of the culture of corruption that Palin stood up to. Of course thugs aren’t going to pose for a movie. He asked me whether I thought people would make a movie of Obama showing smoke-filled back rooms. I thought this was a foolish and hypothetical line of questioning. As far as I am concerned, if people want to make movies about Obama showing smoke-filled rooms, that’s their business. I replied that Chicago has a reputation for smoke-filled rooms.

He asked if I thought the movie was fair and balanced. I paused for a moment, because I did think it presented a fair image of Governor Palin, but I didn’t want to sound rehearsed or unthinking. I said that I thought some of the imagery depicting the savagery of nature seemed a bit of hyperbole, but I understood that it was just artistic license to make a point.

Then he started asking me questions like, “Do you think the price of oil has gone up since Palin was Governor?” (“Um…well, I know the price of gasoline has gone up over the last few years, so yes, since those are correlated”) and “Do you think something-or-other [alas, I do not have a phonographic memory] did something-or-other in 2002 when Palin was Governor ?” (No, since Sarah Palin was elected Governor in 2006).

There were several other derivative questions about oil, prices, the Bush family, other countries with oil, and whether high-priced oil is good for Alaskans. I tried answering these to the best of my knowledge, but I felt increasingly manipulated. The questions were suggestive, leading, and speculative, and were not really related to the documentary I had just watched.

After he stopped the camera, I said, “You really put me on the spot with all those oil questions.” “Yeah, well, I’m a journalist,” he replied. “I’m pro-low-oil prices, and I think that big oil bought her off.”

So that’s the story. CNN has it that Palin and the Bushes are, if not actually in collusion with one another, at least both in collusion with Big Oil to drive up the price of oil, thus saddling us all with expensive gasoline.

That’s their big story? It’s ludicrous. I could have answered that straight up if he’d asked me whether that’s what I got out of the documentary. I would have said something like, “No, Palin stood up to Big Oil. She broke up ExxonMobil’s monopoly on the oil fields, forcing them to drill, which drove up production and, presumably, drove down the price of oil overall. Yes, the people of Alaska would still have benefited, because more production means more profit overall. No, I don’t think Palin is in cahoots with the Bush family. As far as I know, the Bush family represents the GOP Establishment, which Palin is decidedly not part of. I don’t know about President Bush’s connections to Big Oil because I hadn’t just attended a documentary about his career. Send me to a movie about him and I can tell you my opinion about it. But that still wouldn’t give CNN a story about the actual connection between Bush and Big Oil, if there is one. Artificially higher prices due to the carefully controlled illusion of scarcity is the work of a monopoly or a cartel, and Palin certainly gives no appearance of being a part of that. You know, like the diamond racket? But that’s just my opinion on politics and economics in general. Didn’t you say you wanted my opinion on the documentary?”

That’s how the interview would have gone, if he had conducted it like a fair journalist and asked me open questions instead of pummeling me with leading questions that just bolstered his story line. And then he dismissed my discomfort at my awkward answers with the comment that he was just being a journalist.

Yet a true journalist tracking down a story like this would do the research on Palin and Bush, interviewing people from their respective political spheres and within the oil companies. You know, track down original sources. Do actual investigative reporting. Instead, here he was, interviewing Palin supporters about what they thought the connection was between Palin, Bush, and Big Oil. How is that supposed to be a story?

After I walked away and his parting comment had had time to sink in, it dawned on me that my remarks weren’t likely to be put into the proper context. Once I realized the angle of his story, I suspected that my quotes would be cherry-picked to support his thesis and to present me, a supporter of Palin, in as uninformed and discombobulated a light as possible. I am sorry that my mind reverted instantly to such suspicious thoughts. But I have already seen how the media tend to present Palin, picking out her worst few minutes from among hours of stellar footage, so it made sense to me that the same thing might be done to her defenders.

In the interest of protecting myself from a potentially highly-edited and unrepresentative portrayal, I walked back to the CNN crew and asked that they not use my video, after all. I said that if we had time to negotiate a contract, where I could ensure that my remarks would not be taken out of context and misconstrued, I’d be happy to oblige, but in the absence of such protection, I revoked my consent. Just to be safe, I scribbled my revocation of consent down on a piece of paper and asked one of the journalists to sign it.

If the whole interview were to be released on YouTube, I’d probably sound a bit rambling at some points, brilliant at others, annoyed at times, and just plain confused at others. Some of the questions were pretty disorienting. But at least the context of my rambling would be plain.

I chose to err on the side of caution. But I did see the CNN film crew interviewing other attendees and, presumably, asking them the same kinds of leading questions that they asked me. I was not close enough to hear what the answers were, but I suppose CNN managed to capture enough footage to oblige their storyline. So whatever story CNN comes up with, just realize that they went out on a fishing expedition and completely missed the whale of the story. The real headlines should be: PALIN FILM SELLS OUT MULTIPLE PERFORMANCES! CHEERING AUDIENCE GIVES REPEATED STANDING OVATIONS!