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Congress has a responsibility to engage with constituents

As legislators shut off communication, we need to find new ways to engage.

ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images

The president versus the courts may be the top-billed fight in the constitutional crisis that began to unfold a few days after Donald Trump’s inauguration. But the Congress members versus the phones is a remarkable second-tier confrontation.

The phones represent the hundreds of thousands of constituents bombarding Congress members in record numbers about the consequences of repeal of the Affordable Care Act, the nominations of Betsy DeVos, Scott Pruitt, and others to Trump’s Cabinet, or the presence of Steve Bannon in the White House and on the National Security Council.

Several Republican members of Congress have fled town meetings to avoid these topics; others have canceled constituent meetings indefinitely or stopped answering their office phones. (Some constituents even resorted to sending faxes, when that was the last open channel to an office.) White House official Kellyanne Conway reportedly told members of Congress to ignore calls from the public and to follow her own measure of “Real Person Impact” instead.

Having worked for a senator in the 1990s, ignoring the phones (or the emails, then a nascent form of political communication), or avoiding town meetings, is beyond comprehension. Yes, we knew that sudden flare-ups of calls, mail, and faxes was unrepresentative of the full public. So were the older, angrier people who arrived an hour early to get front row seats at town meetings. We knew calls were often manufactured — “astroturf” firms would call a list of people, persuade them some terrible bill was about to destroy their way of life, and then offer to patch them through to their senator’s office to repeat something they’d just been told. Fortunately, these ruses were all too easy to spot and discount.

But calls and town meetings were one of the few windows congressional offices had into what the people we were working for cared about. There might be polling on an issue, but polls don’t measure passion, and politics should respond not just to broad preferences but also to strongly held passions and the acute needs of a small number of people.

No politician always followed the phones; that would be irresponsible in its own way. They were only one piece of input into any decision or vote. Sometimes the phones represented a tiny minority that really didn’t have a strong claim; in other cases, public opinion was hostile but the legislation was important to the long-term national interest. But the phones were a warning system, revealing views that a representative needed to hear and respond to.

Politicians at that time had a vivid recent example of the consequences of ignoring mobilized public opinion — an episode known simply as “Catastrophic.” In 1988, Congress by overwhelming bipartisan majorities passed the Catastrophic Care Act, an expansion of Medicare to cover major costs, such as long hospital stays. But the financing mechanism was poorly designed, and a fierce backlash followed among older voters, which included scenes much like this week’s, of prominent members of Congress trying to escape constituents unscathed. A year later, Congress repealed the program almost unanimously.

In a highly polarized environment, politicians might be tempted to ignore calls if they are confident that all of them come from people who would never vote for them. A member of Congress who wins reelection 60-40 will still have as many as 100,000 people voting against him or her. DeVos supporters promoted the idea that opposition was generated entirely by teachers unions, a generally Democratic group that Republicans can ignore. In reality, thousands of parents of children with disabilities were also activated by DeVos’s ignorance of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, and those parents are as likely to be Republicans as Democrats. Even mainstream supporters of charter schools opposed DeVos. It takes a lot of partisan discipline to ignore those calls, and to shut off the feedback mechanism between citizens and representatives.

A politics in which the only way citizens engage is in the form of an after-the-fact backlash, as in “Catastrophic” or the reaction to the Affordable Care Act in 2009, is limited and likely to be ugly. Congress needs mechanisms that engage the public and solicit policy feedback and response throughout the process — if they are willing to hear it. It might include real town meetings or deliberative exercises — perhaps congressional Democrats should have tried that process while developing the Affordable Care Act, to involve more citizens in the process and the difficult choices involved. Perhaps Republicans should try it now. It may require significant expansion of Congress’s thin, inexperienced, and overstretched staff to fully absorb the views of their constituents.

The phones have always been a blunt instrument, a clumsy and imperfect way for citizens to be heard. But now that embattled members of Congress have turned off the phones, they have more obligation than ever to find a better way to listen and to enable their constituents to be heard.