A Need for A New Strategy on Constituent Phone Calls to Congress

by: Chris Bowers

Mon Jul 06, 2009 at 16:09


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.

Chris Bowers :: A Need for A New Strategy on Constituent Phone Calls to Congress
Here is why I am growing increasingly disillusioned with calling members of Congress:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

    The same situation appears on health care. The White House call center has said that there are more calls against the public option than in favor of it. However, comprehensive, non-partisan polling on the public option shows more than 60% of the country in favor.

    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.

  3. 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:

    Total Lobbying Expenditures by Industry, 1998-2009  (in millions)
    Industry Expenditure
    Pharm / Health Products $1,620
    Insurance $1,220
    Electric Utilities $1,124
    Computers / Internet $924
    Business Associations $847
    Oil and Gas $786
    Education $785
    Real Estate $746

    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.


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Another option is a variant of the Daily Kos strategy (4.00 / 3)
Progressive pressure groups should pool their resources and conduct independent polls BY DISTRICT on issues on which Blue Dogs seem likely to buckle.  Instead of showing Massa national numbers after the fact, we should be able to show him actual district numbers before the fact.  Hundreds of copies aren't necessary -- one copy of a poll that proves his district is unhappy with his vote should be enough.

The Crolian Progressive: as great an adventure as ever I heard of...

Very expensive (4.00 / 2)
that strategy would be great--if we had an unlimited amount of resources. Unfotunately, we do not, even though the opposition does.

Even if we could poll a few dozen swing districts on every major piece of legislation, the opposition could do so as well. And they could skew the polling questitons enough to make the result favorable to them.

No--we need to start discrediting contiuent phone calls themselves. this is a game we fundamentally can not win. As such, we need to start shutting the game down.


[ Parent ]
I heard that Congresspeople who care about phone calls (0.00 / 0)
Are called "Bedwetters" by their peers.

My instinct is that Massa is being disingenuous.  You're not saying anything that all of D.C. doesn't already know; that's why the lowest-paid staffer in the Congressional office handles the calls.


[ Parent ]
Not undoable (0.00 / 0)
Given all the money spent on issue ads, for example, it would actually be far more cost effective to do polls to accompany those ads -- as I'm sure many of these organizations actually do. (You wouldn't run an ad in a district where the issue was actually unpopular, after all.) These orgs may not poll at district levels (many of the ads focus on Senators, not Congresspeople), but I still don't think it would be unreasonable to do polling in 15-20 districts on issues like health care. Keep the questions to a minimum and the polls won't be too expensive... and could be very powerful.  

~Ryan

[ Parent ]
Your analysis is spot on (0.00 / 0)
My Congresscritter had been getting the phone lines jammed when the Cap and Trade came up for a vote - and the NO vote was around 99-1 against.

Many of these people left messages stating that they will do everything in their power to defeat my Congresscritter. When it comes down to it, these hollow threats. To my Congresscriter's credit, even with their marginal district still voted for Cap and Trade.


promising idea (0.00 / 0)
I think there's something along these lines that can work.

Instead of making phone calls, perhaps we should turn instead to placing media requests that ask questions (ala our stand with Dr. Dean campaign).

When Congresspeople go on record ahead of time about why they support or do not support a bill, they typically provide some rationale in relation to their district. A clear role that bloggers can play is to call bull$hit when that rationale is divorced from the reality of the interests of district citizens.

Going back to a key point of one of your recent diaries, this is also why it is so important to have clear statement about what the critical progressive priorities are for a given piece of legislation. It's easy for a Congressperson to weasel out of a stand on a piece of legislation that is not complete. It's harder for them to say they don't have an opinion on a major element of policy (e.g., private social security accounts, a public option for healthcare, a carbon tax, etc.).

They call me Clem, Clem Guttata. Come visit wild, wonderful West Virginia Blue


Web video with overlay (0.00 / 0)
Taegan Goddard has Sen Leahy's video appeal requesting signatures for his Bush-Cheney Truth Commission petition.

I noticed this type of advertising all weekend when I was browsing for the Independence Day posts that Paul requested. And discovered the Neil Diamond concert at Glastonbury as a fine reward. (Watch for Neil on Aug. 14 on CBS, 9pm Eastern.)

Along the same lines, the films at Brave New Films make good TV ads. Health and Justice have made some, but they are not very colorful nor eye-catching. Change Congress has quite a powerful one to run in Louisiana targeting Sen Landrieu.


Oops, time is 8:00-9:00 pm EST (0.00 / 0)


[ Parent ]
USPS (4.00 / 3)
perhaps we should start campaigns to mail hundreds of copies of comprehensive, non-partisan polling analysis to every congressional office.

In a post anthrax world, the mail is almost useless. It takes weeks for the mail to make it through security.

In person visits to congressional offices from constituents are the gold standard.

And at some point we need to demonstrate that we can out mobilize conservatives.


Faxes replace letters... (0.00 / 0)
....especially if they are handwritten, but, you are right...  we have to do better...

REID: Voting against us was never part of our arrangement!
SPECTER: I am altering the deal! Pray I don't alter it any further!
REID: This deal keeps getting worse all the time!


[ Parent ]
I think we need to take (4.00 / 2)
a lesson from some of the bloggers on Iran.

The power in what was done by Andrew Sullivan and the Huffington Post on Iran was the power of individual stories aggregated.  Any litigator knows the most powerful arguement is always rooted in a personal story.  

The story that we want to tell is of people foregoing treatment because they cannot afford it.  What we need to be able to do is build a newsfeed of stories like the stories that were contained in the Twitter feeds from Iran.  

At some point, someone is going to build that newsfeed, and when they do it will be far more powerful than the blogs have been to date.  

There is a moral imperative at the core of the health care debate. That moral imperative can only be driven home by the stories of those who go without care.  


personal stories (4.00 / 1)
single payer activists have been collecting stories for years. There is a whole series of diaries at Orange called Murder by Spreadsheet.

[ Parent ]
Aren't effective or can't compete (4.00 / 2)
The only problem I have with this analysis is that a) Clearly, by the dollars spent, corporate America believes phone calling/phone banking to congressional offices is an effective component of their lobbying efforts and b) Progressive abandonment of this tactic essentially cedes the victory of this area to the opposition.

I guess my mild dissent is this: Phone calling is not the be-all, end-all of lobbying pressure, but it is a component of a comprehensive, effective effort. As a proponent of the 50 state strategy -- that competing everywhere provides tactical and strategic advantage, even though you can't win everywhere -- I'm wary of strategery that cedes and abandons to the opposition.

Self-refuting Christine O'Donnell is proof monkeys are still evolving into humans


I agree, and with the same caveats. (4.00 / 1)
Moreover, I'd imagine that part of what advocacy groups are banking on is that by giving people a small, brief, task and making it easy to do that task, they 1) increase the likelihood that folks on their list will take some other, additional, step, like send an e-mail to their own personal lists, or volunteer, or donate, and that 2) they increase the likelihood that folks on their list will pay more attention to this particular issue in other contexts ("hey - that's the thing I called about").

If, along with the request to make calls, we would consistently offer a next step that would actually impress congresspeople (like constituent meetings or handwritten faxes), that might be more effective, though I guess it's still astroturf.


[ Parent ]
Real life asto-turf (0.00 / 0)
I got some junk email today that illustrates Chris' point. It's too long for a comment, so I posted a diary:

Real life astro-turf

ec=-8.50 soc=-8.41   (3,967 Watts)


Let's Stop Secret Communications (0.00 / 0)
No politician (or their representatives or staff) should be able to have any communication with any person or business, on any issue which may come before the politician, other than in a public and openly-published manner.

When the lobbyists want to buy the politician, they should be required to communicate in writing how much money they will pay for what vote.  Scan it, put it on-line, let the public respond.

No more private phone calls.  What citizens say is ignored.  The lobbyists, the business interests and their secret meetings is where the action is.

A judge is legally forbidden from communicating with a party about any issue before that judge in dispute other than in an open and public proceeding.  The same should be true for politicians.

For example, we know that Obama has openly met with the CEOs of the biggest industries in this country to get their input (or maybe to solicit bribes and shake-downs) on new policies.  These meetings, all communications, should be on-line, open to the public.  Any meeting with a CEO or lobbyist or insider should be televised with public access.  It should be illegal to have secret communications.

Why is Obama trying to prevent the public from learning about all the people who have visited the white house?  Is it because the coal industry has been there en masse, bringing bags of money to Obama, to bribe them to pass a new "energy" law which favors coal of all things?  

Make it public.  Make it a felony to have private communications.  Then enforce the laws.  


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