Saturday, February 23, 2013

Congress: the size of the job

I read the story about John McCain sending a form response to the parent of a mass shooting casualty, and thought: "wow, that's despicable." As the day went by, though, I started thinking it obviously wasn't intentional, because who would do that? There had to be some reason for the bungle. It turns out, it was symptomatic of a much larger issue in senatorial duties:

TPM Reader PL gives us more inside perspective ...
I used to work on Capitol Hill as a junior staffer responding to constituent letters and emails. I wanted to give a quick bit of context for the McCain / Flake form letter scandal. The first point is that the sheer volume of correspondence Hill offices get. It is increasing dramatically. See this 2011 report from the Congressional Management Foundation that found some offices experienced over a 1000% increase in constituent mail from 2002 to 2009 . And a good chunk of that volume is from interest groups who conduct form letter email campaigns. [i.e. "click here to send an email to Congress"]
When I worked as an "LC" in 2007-08 the form letters were such I huge part of our office's daily email traffic, I actually devised ways to auto-filter them based on their IP address [Form letter services are usually handled by a handful of specialty firms, so all the emails they send are blasted from their servers and appear as coming from the same IP address] Of course, my coworkers and I would then scrutinize the filters letters to make sure we did not miss any important information that people may have written in addition to the standard form letter content.
From your story about the Aurora parents it seems that Mr. Teves wrote his heart wrenching and personal story within a form letter campaign organized by Mayors Against Illegal Guns. Therefore, if McCain's and Flake's offices use similar routing and filters procedures to those that I used, I can absolutely see how there could have been a mistake in how Mr. Teves' email has handled.

Like with the rest of the American workforce, senators and house representatives have task loads that are growing too big for them to handle. Recall, too, that the demands of the permanent campaign many reps and senators have to wage means they spend four hours a day doing telephone fundraising. These people were hired to make federal law, which involves among other things reading bills thousands of pages long and gaining a basic understanding of who knows how many different issues, not to mention the broad competency they should gain with the matters their committee assignments pertain to, and they spend fully half of a 40 hour work week fundraising. It is by far the thing they spend the most time doing.

Now consider, on top of all that, the advent of email communication. I've been thinking about this as an archivist and coming across materials in the newest collections that have printouts of email and listserv communiques. Most of the books on collection assessment breezily note that you should treat email like correspondence via snail mail. A quick browsing through a collection of emails, however, and it's abundantly clear that they're not the same. The ease with which one can shoot off an email to anyone, combined with the fact that it doesn't cost a stamp, means emails are much more frequent and informal than mail. Furthermore, knowing several instructors who teach online classes, I also know that people have a much greater tendency to say rude or ugly things in email, which is an emotional drain on a person tasked with sifting through an avalanche of the things.

And they've increased 1000% in seven years. Congresspersons are now being sent not just more mail than they can read, but more mail than their interns can read!

There are a lot of things that need to change with Congress, but we tend to focus on the problem of partisan polarization. Meanwhile, I happen to think congressional overwork is as much of a problem, and it pertains directly to how representatives deal with us, the constituents. The fundraising matter can probably be dealt with in several ways, the most elegant of which, in my opinion anyway, is making congressional campaigns purely publicly funded. Alternatively, the rules committee could perhaps mandate that representatives spend X hours of each day on the floor or in committee, or if possible, both parties could just get together and make a gentlemen's agreement that it's in everyone's interests to cap daily fundraising at an hour.

The email issue is trickier. I'd be fine with representatives and senators no longer responding to emails and instead insisting that they'll only respond to snail mail. While we're at it, if I were dictator for life I'd ban congressional Twitter accounts. Unfortunately, however, we should stick with the politically possible.

The two problems point to a larger issue as well, which is that the population is growing, but the size of Congress is not. The size of the House of Representatives has not been increased since 1911, when the USA was about one third of its current population. Why not increase the number of reps? Some argue that doing so would make it harder for reps to build relationships and forge alliances to pass legislation, but, uh, I think that ship left the harbor sometime around Election Day 2006. It's at least worth considering, I think.