The Cup of Coffee Solution

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Tuesday, August 16, 2005
Have you tried to get in touch with your member of Congress recently? It's not easy. 

The traditional way is to sit down and write a letter. But ever since the September 11 terrorist attacks and the anthrax scare that followed, every letter to the Capitol gets screened, so by the time it's delivered not only is it late, it's often damaged. 

You could try faxing a message, but it's hard to get a word in edgewise these days: Congressional fax machines churn around the clock as organized interest groups spread their word. 

You might try e-mail, but your odds of getting noticed are even smaller than with a fax. According to a recent study by the Congressional Management Foundation, 83 million e-mail messages were sent to members of the Senate last year, and 99 million to members of the House. Small wonder that congressional offices are having trouble keeping up with — let alone paying attention to — e-mails they've been receiving. 

Traveling to Washington is difficult, too: It's beyond most people's means, and members of Congress are so busy on the few days each week when they're in the capital that it's tough to get an appointment if you're an ordinary citizen, no matter how strongly you feel about a particular issue. 

You might just be tempted to give up. Especially if you've been reading the papers, where you've seen that lobbyists and big-time contributors shower the legislators they're hoping to influence with campaign contributions, golfing trips, and tickets to the theater or major sporting events. 'I can't compete with that,' you may well decide. 

You'd be wrong. You can compete. Here's how: Call your representative's office and invite him to meet with you and a few of your friends for coffee somewhere in the district. Be persistent. A personal visit is one of the most effective and one of the most under-utilized ways for members of the public to make their views known. 

You probably think I'm nuts, that no high-and-mighty member of Congress is going to bother with anyone who isn't writing a big campaign check or lobbying for a well-heeled interest group. 

The truth is, though, in all my years in Congress I never knew a colleague who wouldn't sit down with a constituent. 

There are two simple reasons for this. One is that most members of Congress take quite seriously their role as representatives; it's part of their job to hear from constituents. 

The other reason is that you're a voter. Members of Congress don't get to do what they want to do in high public office unless they get elected, and that takes votes. That's why they maintain offices full of staff who help constituents resolve problems with the federal government. If word got around that they couldn't be bothered to help folks back home get a missing Social Security check or hear their views on an important issue, they would suffer at the polls. 

It's the same with a request to meet. If you call your Congress member's office, you almost certainly will not get "no" for an answer. You might get, 'Oh, she can't meet with you next week,' but that's why persistence is important. If she can't meet next week, ask if she's available the week after. Or the week after that. Or ask if she's got regular district office hours for meeting with constituents. Many members of Congress do. 

You can strengthen your case by enlisting some friends to go along — after all, the more voters, the better — and by making it clear that you aren't just planning to show up with a laundry list of gripes. Settle on a couple of issues you want to discuss, and let the staffer making the appointment know what they are. 

This might seem like a lot of bother, but let me assure you, it's not. Our form of democracy depends on our elected representatives knowing what we think. Not only does it help them actually represent us, but also it ensures that the thoughts and interests of ordinary constituents can compete with those of the big-spending Washington lobbying industry. 

If you've got something to say, pick up the phone and give it a try. You might be surprised at how easy — and effective — it is. 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)