Being Heard As a Citizen
HOW TO REACH YOUR REPRESENTATIVE
by Carol W. LaGrasse
Talk to the Coxsackie Awareness Group
June 19, 1997
If your representative in Congress or the Legislature were perfect, you could write him a letter, expect a definitive reply explaining the solution to Your concern, and outlining how he would successfully bring about that solution in the halls of the representative body where he holds office.
But the government is not perfect, the representative is also far from perfect, and you are not perfect either. Therefore it is indeed rare that one letter has such a clear, definite influence on the course of government.
This talk is about changing your methods to make them less imperfect. We will assume imperfections of every possible nature in those with whom you deal, oftentimes balanced by a good share of normal, good human motivations, and will try to improve your methods of contacting those in government so that your influence is effective and positive, so that government is improved.
To begin, I will conveniently pose an apparent contradiction to my earlier statement:
Each individual letter and individual effort in contacting one's representative is important and can often be quite effective.
Representatives universally say, I believe truthfully, that letters, and each letter, matters to them. They say that one letter, to them, represents five, ten, or even one hundred constituents likely to have a similar concern. The letter on any topic can be an alert to the member of the representative body that something important is on the minds of citizenswhich he may be overlooking or underestimating in importance. On the basis of your single letter, he may assign an aide to researching and getting him updated on a particular topic.
So, let nothing I say today dissuade you from writing any letter you have in mind to your representative. Letters, telephone calls, visits to the representative's home or Albany or DC office are of paramount importance, and should be a part of every citizen's normal responsibilities.
There is something missing in the life of an American citizen who has never written to, telephoned, or visited his representatives.
Lesson Number 1: Do It.
Lesson Number 2: Observe the same rules of courtesy that you would use with those around you whom you treat with respect
(I have engaged in confrontations with Particular representatives, some of these of importance and effective. But, generally, and even paramountly, unless repeated, destructive bad faith is demonstrated, and usually even in this situation, courtesy is the order of the day. Going a step further, I have also organized protests, disruptions, and civil disobediences. They have their very important place, when government threatens the lives and property of the people in an imminent way. But this is not the topic of today's talk. In fact, even rallies are not the topic today. Today we are talking about civil discourse.)
Basic courtesy means that a letter on a topic addresses the issue at hand and does not attempt to intimidate. It is doubtful that your letter will intimidate the representative anyway.
The thing that instills fear in a representative is a group of people of some number who are in strong enough opposition to the representative to potentially gather strength and oppose him in the next election or strong enough to create a public issue, such as in the newspaper. A group which is organized and meets regularly is something that a representative will be concerned about. The same applies to a group with a newsletter that goes out regularly to the members. A person who is also a local elected official inherently represents more individuals, because he is a leader and has a following of those who vote for him and listen to him. All of these things give weight to the opinion of the citizen who contacts his representative.
Frankly, with a Person in office, weight of a citizen's voice is very much akin to the potential of that citizen to make the representative vulnerable in the public eye. You can think of it as a background fear that anyone in office as your representative has. Being in office today is not fun, frankly, as there is no assumption of stature and statesmanship.
So a letter or visit that attempts to intimidate is meaningless, for two reasons. If there is no power behind the threat, it is empty. If there is influence behind the person who wants to influence his representative, a threat is not needed.
Courtesy requires clarity and full knowledge of the topic that the citizen is approaching the representative about.
I will qualify what I mean by "full knowledge" shortly.
Here is a short letter to a representative in the legislature.
(Read the citizen's unusually well-written letter, which was sent to his State Senator and Assemblyman.)
This letter is an issue letter. It is drawn from information provided by another group which wanted to gain support for their cause, the Duells' relief from heavy enforcement.
The letter is well-informed in that it accurately represents the degree of knowledge of the writer. The letter is not an individual's own research and topic of interest. It ishopefully, one of many such letters to call attention to a certain issue.
But although extremely well-written, unless the letter is in connection with a specific piece of legislation or unless it is part of a groundswell of letters that continually raises consciousness on an issue, it will probably not be very effective for a number of reasons. These reasons are worth noting, because they apply to many letters:
1. Although an issue letter, the letter was ultimately viewed as a constituent letter and was in that sense sent to the wrong legislators. The writer would have little weight anyway if the letter were sent to the right legislators, because the writer is not a constituent.
2. The writer is not following up the letter with visits, nor with personal follow-up to the person concerned who needed help in the first place. A single follow-up letter that was sent to the Assemblyman, although very well-written, would have minimal impact (not attached).
Let's look at the replies:
(Read two replies, from Senator John R. Kuhl, Jr., and Assemblyman James G. Baccalles.)
These two replies take two standard tacks.
The first forwarded the letter to the constituent Senator, which basically processes the letter forever, as far as the original recipient is concerned.
Since this is not a matter where the representative to whom the citizen originally wrote has a reason to follow up, such as to get help for the unfortunate Duells in exchange for support on a bill the constituent Senator for the Duells wants, there is a dead end here.
Dead ends to your constituent letters are an important part to the path of your effort that must always be observed.
It is like losing an appeal to the Court of Appeals of New York unless you think you can go to the U.S. Supreme Court. Your letter to your representative is dead. There is only the faintest chance that the Senator to whom your representative forwarded the letter will notice that his constituent has gotten a lot of interest. Many letters or efforts by an organized group or two will be needed to move the Senator to take an interest in the Duells.
The citizen who wrote to his representative must at a minimum write a follow-up letter to the Duells' Senator requesting specific action.
The other reply is more interesting. It is clearly unsympathetic, but, as such letters usually are, phrased so that the reader doesn't hear something objectionable.
Oddly, the letter ends with the standard, "Please don't hesitate to contact me whenever I can be of service," but in the case in which the representative was contacted, he was of no service at all.
In fact, the dead end, occurred with his letter.
From a property rights standpoint, the letter clearly personifies the attitude inculcated by people who claim that there is no problem warranting solution. So this letter is actually an important letter, because it voices the continuing falsehoods that only in isolated cases do people have problems with government regulations and that the cases can be easily handled on appeal.
Even though this letter has dead ended, the citizen who originally wrote should realize that he has received a disclosure of immense value. He has learned that his Assemblyman is exactly on the other side from property rights people, fully buying the line of those behind extreme government regulations. This is very valuable information.
The information which the citizen learned from these two letters should lay the groundwork for his becoming an effective citizen in relation to those who represent him.
Lesson Number 3: Letters dead end. You decide whether you are satisfied with this result, and what follow-ups you would like to take, if any. As I said, if your letter is to just part of a big letter-writing campaign where you are aiding some other organization on an issue, you may be satisfied that one more letter came to the constituent's Senator on account of you.
But you may want to learn how to be an effective citizen activist on your own.
Lesson Number 4: Become a citizen expert
Lesson Number 5: Instead of treating Your representative like a dart board at which you throw letters on issues, usually for some other organization, learn to know him and one of his aides as a person by using a matter, a personal one or an issue of great importance to you, as a microcosm to learn about government and influence the legislative process.
In addition, learn the committee process involved in your issue, and start providing useful information to an aide on the committee that relates to your issue, meeting with him and earning his respect.
You will know you have reached an influential position with the representative, his aide and the committee person when they call you more often than you call them.
This took me several years, perhaps two, maybe three. I began to notice that I was getting work assignments from Congress, requests for information and documents, requests to testify, and more. Then I began to notice that I was getting many more calls from Congress than I made, from not just Particular offices, but from certain offices rather often, and also from offices here and there, regularly.
I decided to tell you this point after attending a seminar given a week ago by two good friends in DC about reaching your Congressman. One of these seminar leaders said that it was very important to become a reliable source of information to the Congressman, and told the group that they could each become a person that their Congressman calls with confidence regularly.
In the course of your follow-up on the letter about the Duells or whatever, you will indeed discover a member of the legislature or an aide who truly shares your concern about the situation made possible by excessive government power. This person may be working on a related issue, perhaps doing background research, perhaps drafting clauses that go into bills, you never know.
Over the next months, if you were to bring him the Duells' case presentations, supplemented by honest summaries of how certain situations came to be, he might be helped in his work. You would have a lot of research to do finding out exactly what happened with the Duells FOIL requests, visits to courts and the Duells, etc. and a lot of work writing and making up information kits, but Your presentations might have an ear.
You wouldn't always be dismissed by a representative who says that it is just an odd-ball situation, and that they will get off on appeal anyway. The respect you gain from the representative on one issue will carry over on other issues. (But, of course, you do not want to venture opinions on matters where you do not have adequate, valid information and you do not want to mislead and distort for your causes. This requires that you be very objective about what you write and present.)
The additional benefit you gain by following one issue such as the situation of the Duells in great depth for a long time is that it gives you a window into government.This also leads to another lesson:
Lesson Number 6: Don't hop from issue to issue, whatever makes you angry at the time.
The only people who can do this effectively are the big, brilliant columnists. They work a week producing their weekly column, trying to become reasonably expert so as not to make too gross a mistake anywhere. (They regularly make unintended mistakes because they cannot have enough background on the many issues they cover to be perfectly accurate. You, not having a full-time research assistant, will be hopelessly shallow in your opinions if you hop around.)
Of course, in any one letter, never address two or more matters.
Lesson Number 7: Learn which agencies or bodies do what,
so that you do not waste time going to Your representative if
a simple visit to the county highway department will suffice.
Don't go to the federal government about a state government matter,
and when you are on the right track, don't get side-tracked by
someone who wants to mislead you. If you are seeking the help
of your representative on a constituent matter, know what he is
able to do. The representative will probably want to do it, unless
there is a political problem, as when you need help against the
local political old boys who have hit you unfairly in some way.
But, by and large, state and local government are not yet so confused
that you cannot see how the state government relates. The same
with federal government. Government representatives are very good
with getting checks that are late and
They rarely intervene on issues of enforcement, which is why the letter to the representative is too long-range to help the Duells unless the representative makes such an issue of the situation that the enforcement agencies just can't take the bad publicity and back off.
But I do not want to give the impression that citizen lobbying is not serious and often hardball.
It isn't just making friends.
Lesson Number 8: when visiting your representative, be focused, systematic and definite, document the meeting, leave with what you want.
The mistake that the citizen who wrote on behalf of the Duells made was that he did what every citizen does: he did not say what he wanted from the representative. Did he want a letter to the judge? Did he want a press conference on behalf of the Duells? Did he want a special law passed on behalf of the Duells, introduced by someone with whom the representative might carry weight? No, he just expressed concern. So when the letter dead-ended, he had no measure of failure to reach his objective, because he had none. On the other side of the coin, the representative had no request to fulfill. The representative might have wanted a request to fulfill. He has more to do than count letters.
Write a letter of confirmation about the meeting you just held with the representative or aide.
If you are at a meeting, don't leave without the letter or action you want. I once visited a representative in DC three times before I walked out with a Promised letter.
It is a nightmare when a grassroots citizen appears several times in a Congressional office after the same exact thing which the Congressman can do with some effort.
Remember, that most of the representatives are in the middle, not your friends or enemies on a particular issue. You can indeed persuade them to side with you.
But, don't think that persuading them to side with you involves necessarily intellectual persuasion.
Lesson Number 9: The problem of the representative is not Your problem, the issue is not your issue. The problem and issue are your noise.
You don't reach people on reason, you reach them on votes. Therefore you must document the support for your issue. I don't mean a study; the support is demonstrated when there is a good turnout, such as at the Tannersville hearing(1), and especially, at the Hudson meeting at the Columbia Community College(2), where property rights made such a good showing against bringing Jerry Solomon's part of the Greenway into the Hudson Valley National Heritage Area.
Your meetings, your letters to the editor, your group's appearances, such as at the Columbia County College meeting or a bus ride to Congress, your sponsoring of candidates in various elections where they actually win, these prove that you are a force to be counted.
Lesson Number 10: To win on your issue, draw a strong line on the earth.
Don't accept incrementalism. The people who want to dismantle our constitutional rights for their cause are always on the aggressive. They assume that we will buy compromises that hurt us less than their original proposal.
As an example, a local property rights person bought the compromise broached by Congressman Jerry Solomon to bring the part of the Greenway within his District into the National Heritage Area. Mr. Solomon had added several new clauses to his bill to give certain protections to Private property rights. He had, for instance, added an unusual provision whereby communities could opt-in or not as they choose, rather than be automatically included and have to go through a process to opt out. This provision had been originally put forth by a National Park Service consultant who was concerned about the intense local controversy, but the idea for the provision had languished, buried in a long report.
My stance has always been that federal money, to the tune of $10 million in this case, and numerous federal agencies will accomplish their goals to bring tighter zoning and controls, even on a local basis, if there is enough porkbarrel. The citizens will lose their freedoms by the voluntary actions of their local officials. Gentrification will come in on the heels of the money and influence.
I informed Mr. Solomon's office before my speech that I would remain inalterably opposed to his position. I did not lose his respect. Luckily, because of the genuine effort of grassroots people before the Columbia County Community College meeting, the room was packed with people clearly on my side, absolutely opposed to compromise. We had a genuine debate, the differences between my position and that of Greenway advocates clearly stated.
Most importantly, however, Mr. Solomon was made aware that the compromise was only on the part of one person. This activist later announced a change of heartagain by surpriseat a meeting I arranged with Mr. Solomon's office in DC, for another purpose, to present the annual grassroots private property rights voting index award from American Land Rights Coalition. But since the activist did not represent the thinking of the large crowd in the room that day, the change of heart was meaningless.
A lot of points are illustrated by this story:
The need to be consistent and reliable, even trustworthy, which is so needed for the success of the grassroots property rights movement.
The need to represent more people than yourself, honestly.
The need to firmly stand on a line in the sand, and only receive defeats after every effort has been made to being about your goal.
So, working backward, here are ten rules to help you influence your representative.
10. Don't accept incrementalism.
9. Make noise involving constituents.
8. Visits to your Congressman should be clearly focused.
7. Don't go to the wrong person or agency.
6. Don't hop from issue to issue.
5. Treat your representative, as well as his aide, as a person, not a dart board.
4. Become a citizen expert.
3. Letters dead end.
2. Be courteous.
1. Do it.
Note to local groups: How to start: One often-used, effective way to get the members of your group to begin to contact their representatives is to present a current issue or bill of importance to your meeting and then to have everyone present write, seal and stamp their individual letters before they leave the meeting. This common procedure could be followed up with a visit of a small committee of 2 to 4 to the representative, after which the committee meets to objectively evaluate their meeting and compose a follow-up memorandum of confirmation, followed by a report to the entire group.
The hearing held in Tannersville, New York, on May 5 by the Resources
Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, chaired by Rep.
Don Young (R-Alaska), and requested by Congressman Jerry Solomon
(R-New York), on the U.N. Biosphere Reserves. A copy of Carol
LaGrasse's testimony is available on request.
(2) The Forum on the Hudson River valley National Heritage Area convened at Columbia County Community College on April 20 by Roland Vosburgh, the Director of the Columbia County Planning Department. A copy of Carol LaGrasse's speech "Another Camel's Nose under the Tent" is available on request.
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