The Myth of Constituency

“. . .it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. . . Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

Edmund Burke

The consequences of the trustee model of representation championed by the eighteenth century British philosopher Edmund Burke and the founders and framers alike, are seen today not only in the executive branch of government, but in our house of elected representatives as well. Since the formative Congress of the United States of America in 1789, and especially following the installation of its inaugural phone nearly a hundred years later, we have been intrinsically inclined as citizens and taxpayers to extend ourselves to those who represent us.

When it comes to policy, calling or writing to our members of Congress has been ingrained in us as the first line of offense by the invocations we have heard from politicians, activists, mainstream media outlets, and perhaps even the likes of Schoolhouse Rock! Some might remember Ronald Reagan famously and repeatedly imploring the American people to inundate Congress with calls of protest in order to clear dockets laid out by his administration. Others are exercising their constitutional rights in the era of asking Siri to dial an elected official after a certain bill starts trending on Twitter.

In any case, it is my intent to contend the undistinguished American myth that is the efficacy of constituency outreach and influence as nothing but a widely accepted prevarication. In doing so, I will, of course, consider multifarious scholarly journals and relevant op-eds and articles on the subject, as well as provide an explanation for my proposal that running for office has insurmountable potency for direct policy action in comparison to feeble communication efforts with legislators.

This exploration into the ongoing inefficaciousness of constituency outreach, following its rather comprehensive introduction, will be compartmentalized into sections delineating the manifold, nuanced political implications at hands, whilst citing scholarly and editorial articles in congruence with experiential evidence. From the proceedings, a proposal of uncompromising countermeasure will amount to the raison d'être and conclusion of the exploration. Moreover, I would be remiss not to include a modest amount of first hand, anecdotal evidence, as the culmination of a seasonal internship in a district Congressional office is what develops in these findings.

This winter, I was honored to accept an internship with the district office of Congressman Earl Blumenauer, a democrat representing the third of Oregon’s five districts. During my time there, I was pleased to learn that what that meant was much more than getting yelled at in between coffee runs and operating a shredder. I was able to employ a few seemly blazers, otherwise, the stereotypes fastened in my mind by the likes of Anne Hathaway gave way to surprisingly fulfilling work such as providing research assistance for field representatives, drafting Congressional documents, and managing correspondence with constituents, often along with their case work. In fairness, still plenty of yelling transpired throughout my tenure as intern, as another main responsibility of the job was taking point on all incoming phone calls.

Oregon’s third district is its most dense, cradled in between a metropolis and the wilds of its East. In consequence of its representative consistently engaging such a motley demographic with fairly liberal rhetoric and legislation, I would assay the ratio of supportive calls the district office received in a day compared to the vehemently dissenting to be around one to one. I would say the same ratio tracks with the number of productive calls the office received as compared to the. . .unproductive.

Regarding the latter category, the standard operating procedure became an attempt, to the best of my ability and allowance, to dismantle dangerous lies that had been disseminated by Fox News and even the President himself. And yet, I do not mean to amount all antithetical correspondence to unproductiveness. Pillars of our democracy are the freedom of belief and the right to exercise free speech.

Actually, the disheartening truth of the matter is that the rambling hate speech with which the phone lines were often inundated were about as meaningful as the calls requesting the Congressman sponsor a progressive house bill. In such a case, or in the case of a disapproving constituent, their opinion was quantified daily into a spreadsheet that charted certain policies or events, and whether a caller supported or opposed those policies or events.

To the best of my knowledge, the intern to enter the data into that spreadsheet would be the last to see it. And while I can’t say that I was privy to every moment of the Congressman’s schedule or of every piece of his reading material, the spreadsheet certainly felt designed no further than to facilitate courteousness and brevity while addressing constituent concerns.

As U.S. citizens, we are indoctrinated by the establishment to believe that our greatest power lies in our taking a stand, availing ourselves to the first amendment, and calling our representatives when we need them to consider something. It is my intent to explore the realities of that assumption in the following pages, evaluating the problems therein, and examining their significance with corroborative accounts. In a grander scheme, I also hope to illuminate some of the inherent faults of our democracy, all the while, maintaining one thing. Private citizens intent on making an appreciable difference in federal government are better positioned to further their agendas not by reaching out to their representatives, but by running for elected office themselves.

In asserting that the best way a private citizen can make their voice heard and take responsibility for revolution within their federal republic is to run for office, I do not mean to totally discredit political action committees and public interest groups for their efficacy. In fact, such involvement, while it can’t hold a flame to running for office, is where can be found, next to voting, the real power an individual in a constituency can wield.

Pressures from party leaders, executive forces, donors, personal and religious convictions are, despite the common narrative, essential instigators that individually carry a lot more weight for most representatives than do thousands of calls combined. The great American trope of “the people” being wont to loathe Congress for its impotence exists in direct conflict with, and explicitly in spite of, the collectively engrained notion that calling your representative is the sharpest knife in your drawer, so to speak. If that is true, then we the people have received some incredibly dull cutlery, and many activists, politicians, even journalists and researchers continue to perpetuate the myth that not only are you still adequately equipped as a citizen to chop and cut and slice away at the things you find unjust, but that some methods of chopping and cutting and slicing are better than others.

The stony reality of the situation can be found in the preeminence of the aforementioned amalgam of influences in consideration with ill-defined technical measures of accountability and representation. That said, no one method of constituent outreach has a better success rate than another. Candidly, I have found that calling one’s Congressperson is realistically no more or less worthwhile than emailing, though many politicians and activists have been expressly promoting converse sentiments.

If anything, effectively constructed letters which get processed by hand are the means of communications best positioned to coerce a more enduring impression. I have also found that constituents calling with compelling stories and impersonal contentions are compressed into yeas and nays, perhaps never to be seen, just the same. Partisanship ignites firewalls either unintentionally or otherwise, offices are overwhelmed, and communication processes are unsupervised.

Untrained, unpaid labor adds a precarious variable to the whole arrangement, and one report finds that Congresspeople often consider themselves to already possess a comprehensive understanding of the feelings and needs of their constituents without considering their direct verbal or written opinion. Furthermore, should a representative ever feel obligated to consider the opinions of their constituents, in my experience, they will find that citizens are apt to undermine their own credibility as a whole when so many of their calls are intractably aggressive or aggressively misguided.

There lies another truth, withdrawn from public receipt, revolving around the already paltry legitimacy with which calls are unofficially concerned. With all sincerity, I admit this is the fault of no one but the general public. At the reception desk where I worked were taped two printed pages of phone numbers acceptable to send to voicemail as their proprietors were either abusive, mentally ill, or otherwise relentless.

The phone call I will always remember I took from a constituent who was inconceivably livid after being swindled out of $1,800. It took some months for him to realize that the kittens he had driven to Texas to purchase were not, in fact, the proper breed of which he was assured by the seller. He wove for me the classic tapestry of a Craigslist racket entanglement, only further infuriated by his representative’s refusal to help.

More specifically, he was reduced to screaming profanities at my suggestion that law enforcement agencies would likely be better equipped to resolve the matter at hand than his Congressperson, but I look back on that adult’s misdirected tantrum fondly, as at least the context was amusing.

Other callers would phone in every single day to menacingly bellow pointed obscenities, racisms, and Fox News sound bites. They would doggedly ask invidious questions like “are you a boy” and “were you born that way”, admittedly trying to get a rise out of whoever answered their call, for no other reason than wanton cruelty. It was always after these calls that I felt my populist grip on the resentment I harbor for a republican form of government accessible to an elite few loosen ever so slightly.

That said, if you should ever call your Congressperson to voice policy concerns and find yourself curtly disregarded by an unpaid intern, try to reflect on the barrage of verbal assault under which they have likely been for hours. Consider the fact that they had to pay $12 for parking, and that they are the only person standing between you and a spreadsheet.

Suspending the blame of human error, or apathy, as it were, and focusing instead toward other misconceptions shrouding constituent power, one might not be so hard pressed to find a journal or an article reporting on the superiority of placing a phone call over writing a letter to an elected official. Daniel E. Bergen’s Does Grassroots Lobbying Work is among them, purporting a futile distinction between the two methods along with some otherwise axiomatic conclusions.

“Other methods of contacting legislators, such as phone campaigns, may be more effective. This is suggested by polls that show that legislators pay more attention to phone calls and personal visits than e-mails (e.g., Cornfield, 1999-2000). Such a result would also be consistent with research on vote drives (e.g., Green & Gerber, 2004) that has shown that more personal contacts with individuals, such as face-to-face contact, is far more effective than less personal contacts, such as e-mail.”

Kathryn Schulz, in an article for The New Yorker, similarly signifies an assumed hierarchy in which calling your representative resides in a higher echelon of effect than writing them, at least by way of debilitating volume:

“For mass protests, such as those that have been happening recently, phone calls are a better way of contacting lawmakers, not because they get taken more seriously but because they take up more time—thereby occupying staff, obstructing business as usual, and attracting media attention.”

Later on, we will consider accounts of legislative offices overwhelmed with calls and emails, but for now, it suffices to presume that the morals of these accounts can be reduced to “however moot your concern, we may listen, but don’t expect any resultant achievements”.

John Cluverius, in his article “Don’t Bother Calling Congress” for The Boston Globe resurrects familiar, if not optimistic, misguidances such as, “If you don’t have a good story to tell, don’t press send”, and yet one observation of his stood out to me as distinctly innovatory.

“Legislators are bombarded with information, and their offices are understaffed. But the issue here isn’t simply a problem of processing too much information. Instead, it’s that most legislators already think they know how constituents feel about issues. They conduct polls in their districts. They learn about what constituents want through campaigns and elections. They also belong to political parties that have fairly defined ideologies, and they make specific policy promises in the course of an election.”

Members of Congress don’t deliberately ignore their constituents out of spite, nor do they do so on account of the objective infeasibility of reflecting on the position of each and every constituent. The reason they may not be taking your call is because they already get the gist!

After this unconventional take on the representative process, Cluverius eventually goes on to relinquish the standard dispiriting veracity found at the end of every citizen’s call to Congress, especially in discredit to the alleged value of saturating the work load of field representatives with a torrential onslaught of policy calls.

“Unfortunately,” he says, “my research strongly indicates that high-volume constituent contact on policy issues has at best a negligible effect, and at worst a negative effect, on legislators’ actions.”

In a matter of speaking, members of Congress run exhaustive small businesses across the country to the best of their capabilities, representing their people, if not by the collective beliefs of the entire constituency, then by that constituency’s appointment of authority to act in its best interest.

Furthermore, in the end, there will always be a political action committee or an interest group or a party leader whose advantages cast a Herculean shadow over the pattering of phone calls from concerned citizens.

In the second edition of American Government, senior contributing author, Glen Krutz concedes the difficulties representatives can face in handling the demands of their constituencies:

In reality, the job of representing in Congress is often quite complicated, and elected leaders do not always know where their constituents stand. Nor do constituents always agree on everything. Navigating their sometimes contradictory demands and balancing them with the demands of the party, powerful interest groups, ideological concerns, the legislative body, their own personal beliefs, and the country as a whole can be a complicated and frustrating process for representatives.”

There are scores of studies beyond the purview of this evaluation that delve into political theories, and those specifically definitive of the extent of the responsibility of representatives to represent can provide further insight into the various ramifications thereof.

The research presented here tends toward narrative and historical substantiations along with some scientific, sociological experiments that exemplify the futility of what modicum of influence constituents have over their representatives via the phone or email.

Therein, we find time and again that even if the efforts and means of communication between Congress and the people were functional, the communication itself is a waste of time and does little for the practice of democracy. In her article for “What Calling Congress Achieves”, Kathryn Schulz offered this remarkable summation on the matter:

“When I asked past and present Congress members and high-level staffers if constituent input mattered, all of them emphasized that it absolutely does. But when I asked them to name a time that a legislator had changed his or her vote on the basis of such input, I got, in every instance, a laugh, and then a very long pause.”

Of course, constituent outreach is important, and of course the process of that is often taken seriously by many members of Congress, though, more often by democrats than by republicans, as we’ll see from the research of Adler et al, as well as from the accounts of constituents and staffers. That does not, however, validate constituent outreach as a legitimate vehicle of representative government. Not to say that calling your Congressperson is totally useless. In my opinion, it bears a comparable constructiveness to voting for president.

Lisa Disch, in her journal entitled, Democratic Representation and the Constituency Paradox, argues that

“the fundamental democratic deficiency of the US political system goes much deeper than its disproportionate responsiveness to wealthy interests; it is a matter of system biases that foster the formation expression of those interests, while mitigating against mobilization by those Americans who want inequality to be reduced.”

The interests to which she refers, of course, being facilitated not by a representative’s constituency, but by the controlling interest groups and party leadership of that representative.

Disch’s research is presented through her analysis of The Concept of Representation by Hanna Pitkin, whose work often takes an antithetical aim at the musings of Edmund Burke (such as the one that can be found on the title page of this paper), and the autonomous wiles of the trustee model of representation whose later iterations instigated a voting allowance contingent upon level of eduction.

While broadly enraptured by Disch’s analysis, I was particularly struck by the resounding explication, “Pitkin’s core insight into democratic representation is that democratic representation is ‘quasi-performative’: an activity that mobilizes constituencies by the interests it claims in their name”, abstractions to which I am all too intimately accustomed as an aspirant hand shaker and student of political science.

In regard to examining the responsiveness of parties as what he refers to as procedural cartels, Adam F. Cayton hypothesizes in his research that “Responsiveness to constituents will be lower for procedural votes than for final passage votes. Procedural votes will also be better predicted by partisanship”.

In his journal, Consistency versus Responsiveness: Do Members of Congress Change Positions on Specific Issues in Response to Their Districts, Cayton preservers in substantiating the apprehensions of the significance of constituent outreach his colleges and I appear share, although acknowledges that dyadic representation (the degree to which elected officials represent the interests of their constituencies) is somewhat upheld among constituents and their representatives.

“Dyadic responsiveness of law makers to their unique constituencies on specific, salient policy positions does appear to be part of the reason that the House responds to national public opinion, but the findings also provide ample evidence of partisan effects, particularly over procedural votes, suggesting that party directed changes to the legislative agenda and other legislative behaviors are an equal, if not larger, part of the explanation for aggregate responsiveness.”

This research is indicative of the greatest flaw in all of our democratic system. Even if a constituent can bypass labyrinthine answering machine connections to procure a live, empathetic intern, what they say has no clout. And if it did, what, then, is the extent to which a representative is charged to represent their concerns? They certainly aren’t held accountable for ease of access or how they manage constituent communications.

Quoting a former Congressional staffer, David Pierce writes in a piece for Wired, “There's no law that says they have to account for how they're taking in constituent concerns. It's just how you want to handle it—and whether you want to be re-elected or not.”

Kathryn Schulz ruminates, “How seriously those messages are taken by Congress varies widely, chiefly because, when it comes to interacting with the public, there’s really no such thing as Congress per se.”

Before long we will divulge more about the spring cleaning done by Senator Cruz, alleviating the surfeit of messages that were overpowering his answering machines right around the time a contender for office mounted. These are among the distinctive, indomitable forces at work reducing your phone call to sound pollution, dismissing your civic rights and responsibilities as an ephemeral outrage. Among them, big donors, party influencers, interest groups, lobbyists, even a representative’s personal or religious persuasions.

Reaching out to Congress as a form of political activism is essentially less advantageous than sending an angry Tweet for a few followers. Given that not only their offices, but Congresspeople themselves reliably check Twitter, that’s actually saying quite a lot, practically.

Researchers E. Scott Adler, Adam F. Cayton and John D. Griffin, in their journal, Representation When Constituent Opinion and District Conditions Collide, explore which factor is most influential for representatives who face important legislative roll calls when constituent opinion and district conditions point in two different directions by observing key Congressional roll call votes, district-level survey data, objective measures of district conditions, and other district demographics. Their findings are compelling, to say the least.

“We show (I) that material conditions in a district have an effect on legislative behavior independent of constituents' opinions; (2) that opinions are not always a better predictor lawmaker decisions, compared to conditions; and (3) that whether lawmakers tend to reflect constituent opinion or district conditions is a function of the demographic makeup of their districts.”

These researchers have not only exposed the frailty of the political causality between legislator and constituency, but unveiled the unsung and integral influence of demography in that regard as well. Moreover, this study goes on to endorse the laurels awarded by myself and my unknown colleagues unto our bosses specifically on the left side of the aisle.

Staffers to liberal office holders across the interviews I’ve read have all had parallel experiences to my own, touting the gravity their bosses lent to giving constituents air time, as it were.

Adler, Cayton, and Griffin’s work carries on to exhibit partisan differences in response to constituency leverage, and unwittingly contends that while liberal public servants are by no means more amenable to the opinions of their constituents, they are at least more available to them than are their conservative counterparts.

After months of gathering experiential knowledge on the topic, I find this likely to be true, while concurrently of little consequence to the bearing of the calls either way.

In her article for The New Yorker, Kathryn Schulz expounds a superficial modus operandi by which representatives hold themselves and their offices accountable to constituent perspective.

Schulz imparts that while elected officials are customarily more beholden to the ideologies of their constituents in times of reelection or on occasions where their abidance by public demand would have negligible legislative consequence, they are not accustomed to incessant temperature taking and indulging the every impolitic wile of their constituency.

“If. . .you want a member of Congress to vote your way on a matter of intense partisan fervor—immigration, education, entitlement programs, health insurance, climate change, gun control, abortion—your odds of success are, to understate matters, considerably slimmer. To borrow an example from the C.M.F.’s Brad Fitch, four well- informed doctors might persuade a senator to support the use of a certain surgical procedure in V.A. hospitals, but four hundred thousand phone calls to Senator John McCain are unlikely to change his position on the appropriate use of American military power overseas.”

In further service to the conviction of the partisan divide reflected in the process of Congressional outreach, Michael Waters, in an article for The Outline, makes an example of two republican senators particularly notorious for their unresponsiveness, or ultimately, for the disdain with which they treat calls, correspondence, and constituent opinions.

In his article, “We’re Sorry, Your Senator Cannot Be Reached at This Time”, Waters writes,

Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey has for years been one of the hardest-to-reach Congresspeople. Toomey’s voicemail inbox has been full for as much as two weeks at a time, Politics USA reported in February 2017. . .According to O’Neill’s data, 90 percent of Toomey’s calls are sent straight to voicemail, which is often already full. Reached for comment, Toomey’s office did not specify what, if any, guidelines it enforces around the topic of answering voicemails. Toomey’s communication director has previously said, as FiveThirtyEight paraphrased, ‘it’s hard to quickly process all the messages coming in on various platforms due to the huge volume the office is getting each day.’”

Waters goes on to cite political action committee founder Nick O’Neil as he brings Senator Ted Cruz to the fore, who apparently leaves voicemail boxes full for weeks at a time, perhaps only ever impelled to clear them by the ulterior motive of securing his seat.

“From early 2017 to early 2018, Cruz’s office had an ‘unavailable’ rate — meaning no one answered constituent calls and his voicemail was full — of 9 percent. But that changed suddenly at the start of 2018. Calls to Cruz went through regularly. His voicemail almost always had free space. His ‘unavailable’ rate dropped to just 2 percent. (The average for all representatives is 3 percent.) O’Neill speculates that there’s a simple reason Cruz has suddenly made his voicemail a priority: Beto O’Rourke, Cruz’s more accessible Democratic challenger for the Senate, who could actually unseat Cruz.”

I was lucky to not have to participate in such a fair weather model of constituent service. In fact, constituents who called Oregon’s third district office often did so in complaint of Representative Blumenauer’s staff being one of the few to actually pick up the phone instead of directly forfeiting calls to a series of answering machines. I was also the recipient of numerous complaints regarding the unavailability of Representative Walden’s office, among those of a few other conservative law makers, for that matter.

In highlighting this partisan behavioral divide, it is not my intent to implicate democrats as being more suggestible in their voting and legislating. In fact, it was my intent to illuminate that even under the best conditions, one’s call to Congress will likely be neglected.

Conservative politicians are often in the habit of flaunting their duplicity, but that does not mean that democrats are aptly heeding your concerns when you call their offices and a real person listens to you. The difference between throwing something away and having someone else throw it away comes to mind.