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.