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Congress is out of town this week enjoying a Memorial Day recess. I hope everyone had time over the holiday to find their representative at an event to ask them about their support for permanent elimination of the Death Tax or about their support for personal retirement accounts! If not, you still have a few days with them in town; give them a call, see if you can meet. We here at CSE are always happy to provide you with talking points or issues that you can discuss! That actually brings me to what I wanted to write about today -- your power as a constituent.
A Constituent By Any Other Name
Despite their sometimes demeaning attitude, we must always remember that Congressmen and women serve at the will of the people. The word constituent means, “empowered to elect or designate.” Many elected officials seem to forget this important lesson the minute the step foot in your nation’s Capitol and begin ‘legislating.’ Now I am obviously generalizing here. There are many representatives who understand this simple fact and do not just conveniently remember it on October 4th, one month before the next election. However, for the most part, even the best could use a little reminder now and then.
Representatives are in Washington for just one reason - to represent YOU! You elect them, you pay their salaries, and you have final say as to whether or not they keep their jobs every year. Representatives are not put in office because they are smart, rich or funny. That may help them during an election – but it doesn’t get them a seat in Congress. They are there because you went to the ballot box and voted (not always for the person that wins necessarily, but you participated). Many people would love to have that job and there is a reason that Congressional elections are every two years; so that members of congress remain subjected to the will of the people.
Believe it or not, you scare Congressional representatives. They don’t like people that call to ask about their votes or show up at meetings to hold them accountable for their positions. They like those voters and constituents that stay home and just show up on Election Day to pull the lever without any questions. So you have a LOT of power! Members of Congress know that if they tell you that they will support a specific bill or initiative that they have to do it!
No Washington lobbyist can have the affect that you can if put pressure on a Congressman! Members of Congress and their staff are not beholden to lobbyists – all they may be risking is a PAC check. But with constituents, they know that a day of reckoning is right around the corner. You not only can show up at events personally, but also get the message out back home. You can write opinion editorials in your local paper or letters to the editor. You can set up a picket line outside of their district office or create a sit-in. You can start a phone bank operation and jam their local phone lines. As a constituent you represent vulnerability for your representative, and you should use this to make sure your voice is heard both at home and in Washington, D.C.
An example from a recent CSE fly-in for some of our top activists demonstrates the stark differences in Congressional behavior. One Colorado activist dropped in to see her Congressman, Joel Hefley (R-Colo). The visit was unannounced, so it was expected that the Congressman might be a bit busy and unable to meet. But instead of providing a staff member to talk about our issues or even to re-schedule an appointment, we were brusquely asked to just leave our materials. If treated in this manner you as a constituent have to take your voice home, where it counts. The person in question is submitting a letter to the editor outlining the poor constituent service and will also follow up with a personal letter the Congressman. In contrast one Oregonian activist dropped by the office of Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore). And while they did not agree with us on the topic, their legislative person sat with us for 20 minutes and Mr. DeFazio even stopped in to say hello.
Many Congressman have a sign on the outside of their office: “This Office Belongs to the People of the X District of X State.” Those offices have the right idea and hopefully not only carry that motto on the outside of their door but in the office as well. However, if they do not, it is up to you as a their constituent to make sure that they are reminded who put them in that nice office that they are enjoying!!