Exploring the myth of easy access to government officials
By Sam McCann
This February, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s office was under siege. In the midst of his union-busting efforts, the phone rang off the hook, protesters flooded the Madison capitol building and mail poured in from every corner of the state. Through it all, Walker maintained a steely silence.
“He’s just hard-lined—will not talk, will not communicate, will not return phone calls,” state senator Tim Carpenter lamented to The Huffington Post at the height of the turmoil.
But in late February, Walker did finally get around to responding to at least a single citizen’s concerns. While he ignored the pleas of the angry constituents gathered outside his office, he held a lengthy conversation with one of the United States’ kingmakers, billionaire GOP donor David Koch.
Or so he thought. Turns out that Koch wasn’t on the other end of the line—“Koch” was actually Ian Murphy, Buffalo Beast editor. And as Murphy wound his way through Walker’s notoriously tight-lipped office with ease, speaking with receptionists, executive assistants and even the governor’s chief of staff on his way to Walker himself, he couldn’t help but wonder: “Could it really be that easy?”
The answer, of course, is yes—but only if you have billions of dollars on your side. Walker’s office during Wisconsin’s union-busting efforts may be an extreme example, but it’s one that reflects a larger truth: The sheer number of constituents that elected officials represent requires individual insignificance. Those in office simply cannot afford the time to respond to every person who calls a congressional office or writes a senator. Unless writers have money or power to offer, they’re at the back of a long line that offers little payoff once they do manage to reach the front.
Brendan* discovered this firsthand as a high school senior in the spring of 2008. A suburban Washington, D.C., student, he landed an internship with a U.S. senator through his political science class. Every other school day during his second semester, he would leave his Alexandria, Va. high school about two hours early, hop on the metro and head to the senator’s office. His main job there was reading and sorting constituent mail.
Initially, the office impressed him with its handling of this task. Before starting the internship, he didn’t expect constituent correspondence to be particularly thorough, figuring that the average letter stood little shot of actually being read. “I came into the internship thinking that senators don’t really respond that much, that they’re kind of aloof, kind of above state constituents,” he said. “I was really surprised.
“We were always about three months behind because we did read every single letter sent to us,” Brendan explained. “Every single letter, no matter how crazy, and I like that. It was kind of inspiring to think that every constituent had a chance to actually talk to their representative official, even if it’s at a senatorial level.”
The office relied primarily on interns to fulfill this massive task. According to Brendan, four interns did most of the letter reading, and some even handled letter writing, while the rest of the staff provided a framework to facilitate that communication. At first, he found that framework encouragingly personal. The staff was significantly smaller than anticipated—only 30 people—and everyone knew each other. That tightly knit staff meant that Brendan’s direct supervisor was the senator’s chief-of-staff, who had direct, frequent access to the senator herself.
So Brendan, now just one person removed from the Senate floor, wanted to bring constituents’ concerns to the attention of his boss by passing the letters onto her. But, he found that while someone—usually just an intern—read all correspondence, very few letters actually managed to find their way to the senator’s desk and were therefore addressed in any substantial way. And it certainly wasn’t as “easy” as Murphy found it.
“Sometimes I read a letter and was just shocked by what I read,” he said. “[Sometimes] it was by someone who had been shat on … way too many times, and it was totally unfair. When I read letters like [that], I did my best to make sure that people in power knew how they could help this person. But my overall feeling was that … they were a bit jaded to people’s requests.”
Brendan read letter after letter from constituents bringing up important issues, passed them on to his supervisor and then watched them linger, untouched, on her desk. However, while the senator may not have picked up those letters, some of the stories in the letters stick with him today, three years after he read them.
“There was this one letter I read by this one woman who said that her son had some kind of kidney disease that crept up when he was eight or so, and she and her husband were both working two jobs trying to pay for her son’s medication to keep him alive,” he said. “And it was because of some problem in health insurance that shouldn’t have occurred, and the health insurance company wouldn’t compensate them for something. She had talked to her state senator and everything else, and she had talked to attorneys and lawyers, and nobody would really help her. And it seemed like she had just gotten the short stick because of the crappy health insurance system.”
That woman wanted the senator to call a state official who opposed legislation that would help close a key insurance loophole. She hoped that the senator would convince that state leader to support it, addressing her dire situation in that straightforward way. However, as far as Brendan knows, she never got even that because the senator never saw the letter.
“I brought [the letter] to my direct boss, and she said, ‘Yeah, we’ll do something about that.’ But the next couple days, the letter didn’t move, and I don’t think I ever saw it move.”
While Brendan never saw that letter make it past the chief-of-staff, other mail sped past the interns, over their heads on the way to the senator’s desk. These select few weren’t handpicked for the important issues they raised, but because of the “important” names on the return addresses.
Did the senator and her staff handle these letters—the letters from the David Kochs of the world—any differently than what she got from the rest of the constituency?
“Oh yeah,” Brendan said. “They write back.”
These letters found their way into a special basket separate from the flurry of letters sprinkled across the rest of the office. The chief-of-staff opened the letter, checked for anthrax, and then immediately passed it on to the senator herself. Brendan can’t be sure of what happened beyond that point, but he would guess that the interns weren’t crafting the responses to those letters. He estimates only one in roughly 5,000 pieces of mail—mostly from people Brendan considered to be “powerful”—found their way into this select group. Once there, they flew through the process. Meanwhile, the letters he and the other interns set aside, the ones from the desperate mothers seeking healthcare reform, spent days simply languishing in the limbo on the chief-of-staff’s desk.
Brendan believes that representatives need letter readers—no senator can handle a full load of mail. But, he points out that the process of letter reading, at least in his experience, is deeply flawed, recognizing, “It’s more the idea of constituent mail that’s important than what actually comes out of it.”
But what exactly is that idea? And why do mainstream constituents seem to buy into it, feeling compelled to write or call in even after stories like Ian Murphy’s reveal that politicians shun them in favor of the rich and powerful?
The answers to those questions seem to lie in the public’s perception of constituent-leader interaction. Politicians know that their constituents demand equitable, total access, and they preserve the positive perception of that access at any cost—after all, failure means a surrender of power. Their vociferous defense of the interaction between power and the voting public reveals an intrinsic understanding of the dynamic—like Brendan said, it’s the idea that matters.
To this end, local politicians and federal officials alike make sure to portray themselves as magnanimous, available leaders capable of interacting with the common man. Anne Hughes, spokeswoman for Rep. Jim Moran from Virginia’s 8th District, pointed out, “I think it’s unique in that [Moran lives] so close to DC. The congressman goes home each day. He sees his constituents at the post office,” underlining his constant presence as a neighbor to the people he represents.
Meanwhile, a senior Transportation Security Administration official in the office of external communications emphasized, the agency “is unique. … You deal with the public face-to-face every day, huge numbers of the public, so it’s just going to generate a lot of correspondence. … I think it’s important to [lend a sense of humanity] as much as you possibly can. With huge numbers it can be sometimes challenging to do that, but I think it’s important.”
Ironically, that senior official demanded anonymity after an interview detailing the importance of personal communication with the American people.
That both Hughes and the TSA official come back to the same refrain, the importance of individuals interacting directly with leadership, reinforces the notion of constituent correspondence as central to American democracy. But only the notion of it actually matters; it’s not whom politicians care about, but whom they appear to care about, that gets them elected. They make grand shows of their humanity—it’s a point of pride to go to the post office or the supermarket—and responding to letters is just part of that elaborate, hollow ritual. American politicians don’t give a damn about individual constituents without money or power—because of sheer numbers, they can’t afford to. But they can’t afford to let it appear that way, either. So one of their interns will continue to respond to your letters until you stop sending them. Which, if you take Brendan’s advice, should be now.
“Individual letters, it’s like winning a freaking lottery,” he said. “You might have a letter that’s good enough to get to my direct boss, but you’d have to write it in a way that appeals to the intern reading it, and my direct boss then has to make the decision to deliver it to the senator herself, and that would take a lot of work. That would take a masterpiece of a letter.”
* Editors’ note: Brendan, who has chosen not to reveal his last name, attended high school with the writer.
Read Sam’s full interview with Buffalo Beast Editor, Ian Murphy here.
Sam McCann is a junior journalism major who also only answers one out of every 5,000 letters he receives. Try your luck by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.