In theory, constituent phone calls to congressional offices are a means for average citizens to voice their concerns on legislation and general governmental matters to their elected representatives in Congress.
In reality, constituents phone calls to congressional office are a means for corporate lobbying groups to distort public opinion and push legislation to the right on any given issue.
Whatever the idealistic, democratic theory behind constituent phone calls to congressional offices, the reality is that they have become yet another means for right-wing corporate infrastructure to further its interests within the federal government. In the extended entry, I explain why.
Here is why I am growing increasingly disillusioned with calling members of Congress:
Almost none of the phone calls come without prompting from a media outlet or news organization. There are almost no calls to members of Congress made by in-district residents who are acting on their own. The vast, vast majority of phone calls made to members of Congress are done when people are urged to do so by media outlets and advocacy organizations. Further, not only are most of the phone calls made as a result of outside prompting rather than individual volition, the media outlets and advocacy organizations who make the prompts almost always provide information such as phone numbers, relevant legislation, and even talking points. It is almost purely astroturf rather than grassroots.
Phone calls are a truly horrendous gauge of public opinion. If you want to know public opinion on any given matter, the best way of doing so is to conduct a scientifically random sampling of the population you want to hear from. However, constituent phone calls are self-selecting, rather than scientifically random.
As a measure of public opinion, phone calls to congressional offices are roughly are accurate as Internet polls. I write "roughly" because Internet polls are actually superior in many cases. Some Internet polls are not subject to organized attempts to stuff the poll and skew the results. By contrast, virtually every constituent phone call log on a major piece of legislation is subjected to an organized effort to stuff the poll and skew the results by an outside group.
Take, for example, an email freshmen Democratic Representative Eric Massa just sent out explaining why he voted against the climate change bill last month:
My final reason for opposing this bill was you, the constituents of New York's 29th Congressional District. In the week leading up to the vote, our offices received hundreds of phone calls urging a 'no' vote. In fact, after we tallied the responses, the "vote no" calls outnumbered the "vote yes" calls by a ratio of 19 to 1. My job is to represent you, and that's exactly what I did in casting my vote. While voting based only on polling data is not in concert with my vision - representing this District is my job and I take your concerns very seriously.
Actual polling on cap and trade shows the country relatively split. A recent ABC poll shows the country 56%--42% in favor, and a recent CNN poll showed the country opposed by a margin of 44%--51% (the two polls had very different question wording). However, constituent phone calls give the impression that over 90% of Eric Massa's district is opposed.
Given that constituent phone calls are a completely unscientific means of measuring public opinion, and given that they are in fact pretty much always an attempt to skew perception of the popularity of any given piece of legislation, why are they factor into congressional decision making at all is difficult to fathom.
There are significantly more phone calls from conservatives than from progressives on virtually every issue. Oh wait--it isn't difficult to fathom why constituent phone calls play a role in congressional decision making. Conservative media outlets and advocacy groups completely dominate progressives when it comes to mobilizing on phone calls. The examples of the public option and cap and trade are just two examples, but across all issue areas conservative domination on constituent phone calls is a general rule.
The reason why there are more phone calls from conservatives is made obvious when one looks at total lobbying expenditures by industry over the past decade:
With several billion dollars being spent, it shouldn't be difficult to find a way to make a lot of phone calls to every member of Congress. Further, given the groups that spend the most money on lobbying, it isn't a surprise that calls against health care reform (given the top lobbying industry), cap and trade (given the third and sixth largest lobbying industries), bankruptcy reform (given he eighth largest industry), Net neutrality (given the fourth largest industry), and the Employee Free Choice Act (given that the top lobbying associations are all private business), always dominate congressional logs on these or any other major issues. These industries are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to lobby Congress every year.
Do you know how easy it would be to generate a few hundred phone calls to every member of Congress on any major piece of legislation with an annual budget of $100,000,000? Any progressive organization would break the phone lines of every single congressional office in the country if they had that sort of budget. However, they don't have the money-large industry groups do.
Add it all up, and the bottom line is that constituent phone calls to members of Congress have mainly become an astroturf operation by corporate interests designed to skew perception of public opinion and further right-wing economic legislation. It is yet another aspect of our government that has been almost thoroughly corrupted.
Progressives should consider changing tactics. Instead of making phone calls to members of Congress, perhaps we should start campaigns to mail hundreds of copies of comprehensive, non-partisan polling analysis to every congressional office. Instead of making phone calls, perhaps we should turn instead to placing media requests that ask questions (ala our stand with Dr. Dean campaign). Or, perhaps when we make phone calls to Congress, our calls should focus on reminding congressional offices that most of the calls they receive are corporate astroturf.
Whatever we do, we can't allow the status quo to continue. We will lose to the billions of dollars in corporate money every single time.