We've all been there. That moment when you look at the US government, shake your head and wonder: how did it get this bad? Recent polling indicates that 60% of Americans would like to fire everyone in Congress, and people think that toenail fungus, dog poop, and cockroaches are preferable to their elected representatives.
People are fed up (to put it politely), but what should we do about it. It's all well and good to tell Americans to vote, but elections don't always offer a lot of options, and we still have months to go before the November 2014 voting day, let alone 2016. With that in mind, I asked numerous Capitol Hill staffers and lobbyists about the best ways for normal people – those without millions to spend – to actually have their voice heard on the shutdown, the debt ceiling, the NSA or anything else.
Here are the top 5 tips from political insiders:
1. Don't waste your time writing to a US senator
I interned in the US Senate in college, and like most interns, I spent a lot of time in the mail room and answering phones. I'll never forget seeing a letter from a friend's mom. It was hand written, so that meant it merited a response from the senator – a form letter response. I logged in the woman's details and saw that she wrote about every month. What I really wanted to write back and tell her was that her letters were being read by interns or the lowest paid Capitol Hill staffers and having zero impact.
As one former Senate mail room staffer put it:
If you really want to make a difference, I would suggest forgetting about your senator. Their constituency is too big and there are too many voices for you to make a dent. Call your house member. They are up for re-election every two years and have to react.
I was skeptical if even calling or writing to your congressman was worth the time, but several aides assured me they were keeping tallies of calls during the shutdown and on other issues. As one aid put it: "members of Congress are very well aware when the mail and the calls are running 5 to 1 for or against a particular issue or legislation".
The trick to making your note stand out is to humanize the issue. Talk about how it impacts you or someone you know personally. Often congressman will try to read and respond to a few letters a month, and they are almost always the sad stories. As another of those lowly front office/mail room staffers told me: "While it's true that a majority of correspondence we get is from large campaigns and form letters, the way to get your letter/email in front of a congressman or senior staffer is to write about a unique issue that the office doesn't have tons of published statements about and include a deeply personal story."
2. Do request a meeting or attend a town hall
It's easy to be cynical about whether you can make any difference at all. One aid who has been working on the Hill for several years now summed it up well: "Contacting your elected officials … ha. That's one of the big reasons I got so disillusioned with our current political process. I have a very dim view of how much influence citizens can have with their elected officials." But she went on to say that someone's best chance of being heard is to get a face-to-face meeting.
Most members of congress will take a meeting with constituents, if requested politely. They travel to their local offices in their home districts several times a month, so you don't even have to go to Washington DC for the meeting. Even just getting your story in front of a district office staffer increases your chances of having it heard by the congressman (or even senator) than sending an email or angry tweet.
One former mayor who is now a lobbyist told me:
An actual visit with an elected official (eg at a town hall meeting) is extremely powerful and has significant impact. It sounds old-fashioned and clunky in these days of social media and electronic communications, and it is clunky. For that reason, it is all the more persuasive and powerful because someone really took the time and the initiative to actually show up in person.
3. DrunkDialCongress.org: unique campaigns still work
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One of the most effective tactics during the shutdown was the website DrunkDialCongress.org. The premise of the site was simple: people were mad at Republicans and Democrats over the shenanigans. Instead of just calling your own representative, you could enter your phone number on the site and it would dial a random congressman's office for you. It was put together by Scott Goodstein and his team at Revolution Messaging, and at one point during the government morass, over 100,000 people were using the site to make calls and the homepage was getting upwards of 700,000 hits.
It was a well-timed campaign that used humor (and very good cocktail recipes) to make a deeper point. Scott told me:
Members of Congress were actually reported being drunk on Capitol Hill the night of the government shutdown. So instead of doing their jobs, they were coming off the House floor smelling like alcohol. That really bothered folks at our firm. We thought it was fun [to set up the website]. Then it turned inot a game with people calling in several times to see if they got Democrats or Republicans.
Anecdotal evidence from staffers is that congressmen were coming off the House floor one day asking each other how many "drunk dials" their office had received. It's a reminder that new technology combined with old tricks of the lobbying trade can work. The site has been re-vamped now to connect people with their own congressman.
4. Form a PAC or join one. Strength in numbers
As the Tea Party proves, there are few things more powerful in politics than getting organized. In politics, that means forming some sort of grassroots organization or political action committee (PAC). It's tedious to file the paperwork, but it's highly effective.
"We probably got at least $50m of [media] exposure with only $100,000," says Marc Rubin, the co-founder of the Denver Group, a nonconnected committee (similar to a PAC) that was formed in 2008 to ensure a fair process in the primaries between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and at the Democratic National Convention.
What I found is actually taking a leaf from the Tea Party. As vile as I find their politics, they are very well organized.
Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, executive director of Moms Rising, has a similar story. She realized the best way to get mothers' voices heard was to form a 501c4. Moms Rising now has a million members. "We were founded around the kitchen table, and we're are still around the kitchen table," she says. Her group has worked hard to ensure there are no cuts to Medicaid under the sequester since 1 in 3 kids in the US receive health insurance from Medicaid, among other issues impacting women and families.
5. Challenge politicians in the primaries (or threaten to)
Nothing gets a politician's attention like the threat of a challenger. It's a tactic the Tea Party has been using, especially on issues like taxes and Obamacare. Republican congressmen know someone from the far right will run against them if they aren't seen as conservative enough. That's a powerful motivator. But the Tea Party isn't the only group that can use this trick.
A former senate staffer gave the best advice:
But if you ask me, if I was running an advocacy organization, I would start up a PAC right now and start collecting for an anti-incumbent fund, [and say] regardless of party, we'll give money to any challenger. Then I would find a few key districts where it was close last time and get that challenger to endorse the PAC in the local media. That will get some member's heads turning. It actually doesn't matter how much money you're collecting, just that someone is making noise.
The bottom line is don't just get angry at Congress, get organized.