Monday, July 25, 2022By:
Hi y’all! This week, I’m going to talk about constituent letters. When we get a correspondence from a constituent, be it phone call, email, fax, letter, or smoke signal, it is the policy of our office to respond to it. We get about 1500 incoming correspondence each week. To make this manageable, we group incoming correspondence regarding similar issues into batches, to whom we will send one letter. This is not as difficult as it sounds – the majority of correspondence we get come from email or letter campaigns. Our system detects duplicate letters from different people and puts them in their own batch. After that, we just have to go through and add the personal letters. Each week, I am assigned three batches to which I draft the response. This response is what we colloquially call a constituent letter, though the confusion that term may cause is not lost on me. Congress is the wrong place to be if you want everything to make sense.
When I am assigned a batch, the first thing I do is read all of the unique letters in the batch. Usually this is just a couple of campaign emails, and perhaps one or two personal messages. I try to make sure something ends up in the final letter that directly addresses each unique message, especially personalized letters. Once I have a sense of what the constituents are contacting us about, I start researching. If they are asking about a specific bill, I look up the bill. If they want to know Congressman Foster’s position on a very specific issue, I Google around and become a mini-expert on the issue in question, just like with memos.
Next comes the hardest step: formulating a message. More often than not, I’ll be responding to a letter about a very, very specific issue (see the list below), so it’s unlikely that Congressman Foster will have a stated position on the issue. So, I tend to look for broader themes that align with the Congressman’s values, like expanding healthcare access, standing up for human rights, valuing scientific research and innovation, and so on. Most of the time, even if the letters we are responding to disagree with Congressman Foster’s position, the fundamental value is shared, so I can focus on that.
Once I have the message, writing is the easy part. I will typically write two paragraphs, in addition to a salutation and conclusion. The first paragraph describes the issue in question. This is somewhat similar to the background section of a memo, but more colloquial. I place the issue in the context of Congressman’s values. If Congressman Foster does have a stated position on the issue, I will include it here, but more often than not, I have to avoid explicitly taking a position. I find that frustrating, but then again, in the 117th Congress, over 29,000 bills have been introduced. Congressman Foster can’t be expected to have a stated position on every single one of them. In the second paragraph, I usually divert somewhat from the main topic to discuss actions Congressman Foster has taken that fit the message or theme. For instance, Congressman Foster might not have an explicitly stated position on the extension of Obamacare subsidies (though in this case I believe he does), but he has taken other actions that are also focused on expanding healthcare access, so I might talk about those instead.
This process is often frustrating for me. We often cite cosponsorship of various bills, like an assault weapons ban, as an “action” Congressman Foster has taken on gun violence, even though there is little chance the bill will become law. 100 bills that Congressman Foster has cosponsored have eventually become law. 50 of those bills were ceremonial (naming post offices, awarding Congressional Gold Medals, etc.). His cosponsorship success rate is about 5.5%, which is about seven times higher than the average bill passage rate of 0.77%, but it is not so high that I would consider cosponsorship alone an “action”. Then again, in many cases, it’s often the best we can do in this political environment and with the various systemic obstacles we face. Like I’ve said before, this is nothing against Congressman Foster, or our office. It’s just the nature of the system we operate in. That doesn’t mean it’s easy for me to talk about our “accomplishments”, though.