Body Politic reader Michael Searway shares his experiences working in a Congressional district office and what lessons we can learn for our civic lives today.
For the vast majority of Americans, who don’t live in or near our nation’s capital, Congress probably feels far away—in both a geographic and conceptual sense. But it’s a lot closer than you think. Each Member of Congress has at least one ‘district office’ located in their Congressional district—the area that they represent in their work in Washington. When the Member is at home, generally during a recess, that’s where they work—although they’re often travelling around their district during that time as well.
Most of the time, the district office is staffed only by case workers or field representatives. These staffers are chiefly responsible for helping the people of that district—referred to as “constituents”—with various requests that they might have, such as a problem with a federal agency. They will also convey messages from constituents or local groups and organizations to the Washington office, and vice versa. Of course, like Congressional staffers in Washington, the district office staff is often aided by interns, especially in the summer. I took on such an internship the summer before my senior year of college, working in the local office of my Congressman, George Radanovich, in California’s Central Valley. One of my primary responsibilities was responding to correspondence from constituents and passing their messages on to the local staff or our colleagues in Washington.
As a 21 year-old, I got to have some incredible conversations that summer and support several projects that I’m still proud of today. Unfortunately, though, I can still place the bulk of those letters and phone calls into one of maybe three categories—none of them very serious about civic engagement. At least a third of the complaints came from just a handful of constituents, who we came to know on a first-name basis. They generally included some conspiracy theories and related anti-everything screeds. Another third or so were expressions of opposition to a major immigration reform bill under consideration in Congress at the time; these messages, at least, dealt with legislation, but were generally more ‘anti-immigrant’ in tone than ‘anti-reform,’ and just barely touched on the actual substance of the law. Finally, about a quarter to a third were requests for White House and/or U.S. Capitol tours for constituents visiting Washington. (The tours are excellent and we strongly encourage you to reach out to your representative to arrange a tour if you are going to visit DC.)
All of this led me to a dual-natured, surprising discovery: Connecting with your Member of Congress is much more feasible, and effective, than you might think—yet this channel remains vastly underused by most U.S. residents. So if our political system is broken, we need to blame ourselves as much as the politicians and other professionals that run the country’s government and political machinery.
Of course, we don’t. In the United States, we regularly, mistakenly think that our civic duty begins and ends on Election Day. Or, put another way, we often think that “democracy” equals “voting” (though even by this low standard we perform pretty poorly). But we live in a representative democracy, where we don’t actually vote directly on most major matters of public life—we choose ‘representatives’ to do that for us, at the national as well as local and state levels. While we can simply lend these men and women our vote and then leave them alone for a couple years, they need our ongoing input if they are to adequately represent us.
That’s what Congressional district offices are for. The staffers are there to help constituents, but they’re also there to gather input. Our Members of Congress need our phone calls, our visits, our letters, our emails, our faxes. They need our voices—and preferably our faces too. Now sure, it’s easy to come up with excuses for not reaching out to your district office—I could fill a separate listicle with them. But if you do decide not to engage, you have to also put aside your Election Day complaints and accept that your more-engaged neighbors and interest groups are shaping our national and community discussions. As I look back on the summer of 2007 and those anti-immigration calls and letters, I can see early traces of the (understandably) angry groundswell that has brought Donald Trump to the White House. Those voices intensified and consolidated during and after the Great Recession, resulting in a message heard by all of Washington, the country, and the world.
From what I hear from my friends who still work for Congress, constituent correspondence has greatly increased since last November. Let’s make sure this isn’t just a post-election or post-inauguration spike. The 115th Congress will be here for the next two years, the Trump Administration for at least the next four. Wherever you stand on the political spectrum, don’t just tune out until the next elections. By all means vote, but understand that by the time the polling places open, it’s almost too late to have a constructive influence.
Again, a healthy representative democracy requires engaged citizens; we have both an opportunity and an obligation to keep our leaders informed about the districts and communities they represent. And we can do much to dial down the loud, divisive rhetoric that has dominated our country over the past few years. Start by finding your closest Congressional office (or at least its phone number) and having a conversation with the staffers or interns that work there. They’ll probably be surprised to see you, and you’ll probably be surprised at how they listen.