Ilona Nickels
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Ilona's Blog: September 2020

Citizen Influence on Congress by Ilona Nickels

It's said that Washington is
swamped with lobbyists. It is.

So where does that leave the average citizen?
With the advantage.

Cynicism about Congress is understandable. It also leads to a dangerous passivity. Congress doesn't legislate in a vacuum. It is a representative institution and it really does reflect the cascade of voices bombarding it. Individual citizens must be part of the noise or risk being overlooked as decisions that affect their livelihoods and industries are made.

People often ask: Why can't Congress just get its act together and get something done?

Maybe it's because Congress really is what it was designed to be: a representative institution. It contains advocates for different parts of a large geographic expanse of a country with inherent regional conflicts, an incredibly diverse population, and competing economic drivers. A diverse country is going to have strife, contentious debate, and disagreements — and so will the institution that represents it.

Our elected representatives must first give voice to the conflicts that rage among us before they can work through that conflict to reach a consensus. Those arguments often are perceived as blind partisanship, but that contentious debate is an important part of the process. Finding a consensus takes a lot of time and effort, but first the disagreements must be clarified. On some issues, the conflict is too profound and not sufficiently worked through, and the process fails to produce a law.

A common criticism heard about Congress is that it is out of touch with the average American. It's not. Members of Congress cannot afford to forget what is important in the daily lives of their constituents. As each election approaches, those 30 second negative attack ads are coming.

A single vote taken out of the context of the 800-900 cast during a two-year Congress can be the one characterized as having harmed the local district or state — an entire body of representative work is reduced down to one vote. Through the power of television, it can become the emblem for an entire career.

As distorting as that is, political operatives will tell you voters are more influenced by negative ads than they are by any other source. It is the rare citizen that engages in any personal dialogue with their legislators, or reads their newsletters. But they all watch TV and hear the incessant bickering among talking heads and see those over-hyped ads.

For a Member of Congress to cross their constituents is to invite significant political consequences. It can only happen as an exception, not as a rule. If the national interest and local interest diverge, Members will more often vote to reflect "their people." 

For example, the citizens of Arizona, Texas, southern California, and New Mexico have a very different perspective on immigration reform than does the nation at large. Don't expect those border state reps to vote for a glide path to citizenship before the border is secured. Citizens living in Iowa, the Dakotas, or Oregon may have a completely different view, welcoming all manner of immigrants to supplement their labor force.

It's not that Members are ignoring national opinion polls;
it's that they are reflecting local ones.

In our system, Members of Congress are accountable only to the specific group of voters who hire and fire them — not to anyone else's vision of what is best for the country as a whole. A Member who votes his or her own best judgment on an issue, when that judgment differs repeatedly from the views of the local citizenry, is no longer the right ambassador for that locality. And the voters will figure that out — with a little help from the opposition research team.

It's said that Washington is swamped with lobbyists. It is. So where does that leave the average citizen? With the advantage. Critics often complain that the men and women of Congress are too busy listening to the lobbyists in Washington to do what the people want. In fact, the opposite is true. Before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, the vast majority of Members went home every weekend and spent 3-4 days in their districts or states before returning to Washington. When in D.C., even now, Members are never long in one spot, traveling between their offices, the floor, committee hearing rooms, fundraising receptions, etc. They are moving targets for a lobbyist to try and pin down.

The average citizen can start out with access to a Member of Congress that most lobbyists have to work and exercise great creativity to gain. A constituent has special status. He/she can visit with the Member on home territory, when their schedules are less hectic and fragmented, and their attention span less stressed than in Washington. While most lobbyists in Washington maneuver to create the opportunity for a single conversation with a Senator or a Representative, the average citizen has the means to establish an ongoing personal dialogue with their Member.

When a constituent speaks about the local impact of an issue, they have instant credibility with that Member of Congress. When they support their case with local statistics and examples, they bring the legislator data they will not be getting elsewhere. The broader national pros and cons of the issue will be presented to a Member of Congress in a hundred different ways by a hundred different lobbyists. But to apply those arguments to the specifics of his/her area of representation — that is incredibly valuable information that any Member of Congress would be eager to obtain.

Forget the blast e-mail campaigns that no Member reads, but instead delegates to a young staff aide. E-mails may be convenient; they're just not effective.

Members of Congress remember
face-to-face conversations more than they do
the contents of a hand-out or thick briefing book.

More effective is for a constituent to drop in on open office hours at the Member's nearest district office and speak with them in person. Or to attend one of the Member's regularly scheduled local town hall meetings.

All politics is local may be an old bromide. But it remains true. All legislating is local too. While PAC checks and Washington offices certainly have their role in a very complicated process, the best ammunition in the war of words that is our democracy today comes straight from the mouth of the local constituent directly into the ear of his/her elected representative.


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