Institutional Memories: Constituent Service

The day-to-day operations of a Capitol Hill office are rarely glamorous.  While you might like to think staffers go whizzing from one important meeting to another, negotiating legislation, hashing out report language, and horse trading with billions of dollars, the truth is that while those moments do happen, they happen only every once in a while. 

So what is it those staffers are doing the rest of the time?  For the most part, they’re taking care of you.  Or your neighbor, or the guy in the next block, or across the county, or across the state.  Most of their days, in fact, are spent writing to or talking with constituents, most of whom remind them that “my tax dollars pay your salary!”  And what that polite staffer won’t say in response is that there are days you just don’t pay them enough to deal with constituents . . .

Now, keep in mind that most people don’t call their elected officials unless they have a gripe, problem, or complaint — after all, you don’t call the power company to tell them that your electricity is working exactly as it should, and that the lights do, in fact, come on when you flick the switch.  Nope.  You call them when the power is out, and you want the problem fixed as quickly as possible.

It’s the same in Congress.  In general, you don’t call your Congressman to let him or her know he’s doing a great job (though some nice folks do).  You call when you don’t like his vote, or you can’t get your Social Security check, or even when you’ve read some article in Newsweek about government spending that’s got you really cranked up.  Congressional staff know this, and they’re ready for it.

But still . . . there are days that can try even the most positive, patient staffer.  Days that require hours on the phone, letting Mrs. Johnson vent about health care reform by relating all her own experiences in hospitals for the last 52 years, and usually giving you her complete medical history, including all major surgeries.  Days that require writing countless letters to the FCC on behalf of Mr. Haggerty, who believes the government is monitoring his actions through his cable television — and any assertion to the contrary clearly means that you’re covering up for the FCC’s criminal activity.

Then there were the weekly calls I received from a well-meaning gentleman who was absolutely convinced he was getting radiation poisoning from his dash lights.  Once we resolved that issue — after several weeks of conversations — he then informed me that he was certain the dye in pancake mix was giving him leukemia.  I had another equally as well-meaning fellow insist that the Constitution secretly allowed for the United States to be administered by a royal family, while another lobbied intently for scrapping Columbus Day and replacing it with Amerigo Vespucci Day.

Because we had the pleasure of  working for a Senator representing New Mexico — which is home to Roswell, the UFO Conspiracy Theorist Capital of the World — we received more than our fair share of really bizarre mail.  More than once we had constituents send us photocopies of naked pictures of themselves, with red marker indicating all the spots on their bodies where aliens had implanted devices.  Sometimes we would receive pieces of metal — always nicely packed in bubble wrap — which were allegedly from alien spacecraft (one of these hunks was clearly a penny that had been flattened by a hammer).  Other packages contained letters rivalling  War and Peace in length, explaining the entire UFO coverup, and outing several members of Congress as aliens.  These letters, and others like them, all received carefully written, respectful responses.  I know, because I wrote a lot of them.

Staffers today still spend a great amount of time on the phone, and they’re now crafting responses for e-mail, rather than letters for mailing.  But the rise of e-mail has, in my opinion, seriously ramped down the civility in constituent mail (the relative inconvenience of having to find pen, paper, stamp, and envelope used to provide those “take a deep breath and count to ten” moments that so many e-mailers seem to ignore before punching “send.”)  But it’s also removed a bit of the element of fun, too — after all, it’s tough to e-mail those shards of alien metal.

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One response to “Institutional Memories: Constituent Service

  1. Thanks for the insights. I had no idea.

    Please consider blogging about what it takes to be (and become) a political speech writer.

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