By Ralph Nader
It’s a pleasant early June evening and you’ve settled down to watch some TV. The front doorbell rings and you rise to see who’s there. “Hello,” says the visitor. “I’m your new neighbor and just wanted to introduce myself.” “Nice to meet you,” you say. “What do you do for a living?”
“Well, funny you should ask. I have quite a job. I spend twenty-two percent of your income. I can raise or lower your taxes, send your children off to foreign wars, give your tax dollars in subsidies and bailouts to rich corporations, allow lots of wasteful spending by the executive branch to benefit corporate contractors, limit law enforcement budgets against violations by corporations, and give away your public airwaves and your public lands. And I’m so busy doing all those things that I just never get around to all the important things you think I should be doing. Here’s a brochure on the many public policies I’m supposed to oversee, including Medicare, Social Security, and the minimum wage. See you later!”
As the new neighbor turns and walks away, you have two choices. You can get angry that he decided to interrupt the finale of American Idol you were watching, just to tell you how he’s selling the American people down the river. Or you can call him back, saying, “Listen, you mean a lot to me. Come back, because I better mean a lot to you.”
This new neighbor is your representative in Congress. In the context of our republic, we have given him enormous amounts of our power, to use to promote and protect our rights. And our one remaining direct voice in our government—our vote—has been weakened by the very authority we’ve given to Congress. And what authority it has! Congress has the power to tax, the power to spend, the power to make war, the power to subpoena witnesses, the power to investigate almost without limits, the power to oversee the immense executive branch of government, the power (in the Senate) to confirm all high-level cabinet nominees and members of the federal judiciary, and the power to impeach any federal official or judge from the president to the Supreme Court on down. Then there’s the power Congress has assumed, which is to delegate more and more of its own authority to federal departments and agencies, or has simply abdicated, such as its constitutional authority to either the White House or the federal courts. This latter abdication has slowly been eroding the system of divided powers, established by the framers in 1791, that is supposed to limit the excessive exercise of authority by those who govern We the People.
It was not always thus. Back in the early days of our republic, when most Americans were farmers, the major work of the federal government was delivering the mail; Washington was a sleepy national capital. Some people today pine for those days. But those days are over and they aren’t coming back. The life of our society is immensely more complicated and intrusive, and the ways of its most powerful entities more fully obscured from public view, regardless of the ubiquitous mass media and the internet. People everywhere are affected by events and actions that are beyond their control and even their understanding. Until, that is, We the People start taking this control back. Which we can, if we want.
After all, as the most powerful branch of government, Congress should be our most powerful ally, the most responsive branch of government to our rights and needs. In spite of its staff, which numbers at more than 30,000, Congress comes down to people. And yet roughly 1,500 corporations consistently get their way with a majority of these people to whom we have given so much of our power. These corporations— ExxonMobil, General Motors, DuPont, Pfizer, Aetna, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, McDonald’s, Walmart, Weyerhaeuser, Monsanto, Procter and Gamble, AT&T, Verizon, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, General Electric, United Technologies, Microsoft, Google, FedEx, American Electric Power, and so on—do not have a single vote. They have money and influence. But only we have the votes that send these 535 men and women to Congress.
So if we hold the reins, then, why is it that the corporations control the horses? Because they know what the horses like to eat. Because they are there day after day, plying the corridors of Capitol Hill. Because they fund, socialize, play, drink, and vacation with these lawmakers. Because they have nice, cushy, high-paying jobs waiting for these legislators (as well as their assistants and their relatives) when they retire from their seats. Because they can apply a lot of pressure when these carrots don’t work. Because if a legislator doesn’t serve their interests, they can run someone more accommodating against him or her. Because they can make these legislators look bad—or undeservedly good—through deceptive advertisements and other seedy slanders or puffery.
Still, they don’t have a single vote. And you do. Only We the People have the vote. Of course, half of us (or more) give it up by not voting. And many of the other half are “hereditary voters,” meaning that they vote for the same party as their grandparents and parents, regardless of current conditions. Politicians know that, for the most part, they can take such votes for granted; most party-line voters are too disengaged from the process to break away. A two-party system like ours amounts to a shared monopoly over the government. And competition between the two parties is reduced further in many states through the practice of redrawing districts known as gerrymandering. With remarkable accuracy, the party in charge of state governments can use gerrymandering to transform natural districts into bizarrely shaped districts that sharply increase one party’s domination over the region. At present, a large majority of House districts are noncompetitive—dominated by either the Republican or the Democratic Party. The winner takes 60 percent or more of the vote, with the challenger running a nominal campaign with nominal funds. This discourages voter turnout while diminishing the competitive power of discerning or swing voters. In 2002, only fourteen House incumbents were defeated (and some of these were because of redistricting). In 2004, nine incumbents were defeated. More seats were up for competition in 2006, 2008, and 2010, but still, more than 80 percent of incumbents enjoy slam-dunk reelections in their one-party-controlled districts.
Over the decades, the League of Women Voters has cataloged the many ways voters are obstructed from voting. These tactics include difficult registration requirements, miscounting votes, discrimination, removing candidates from primary ballots, and obstructing third-party and independent candidates from getting on the ballot. Many older obstructions have been eliminated through civil rights laws, but new ones seem to emerge all the time. The obstruction du jour in some states is requiring onerous voter ID cards, which are a burden on lower-income voters. No country in the Western world comes close to the many ways that our state governments obstruct and harass voters from voting and dissenting candidates from running. Some states make it extremely difficult for a primary challenger, even for one of the major parties, to make it onto the ballot in the first place by establishing unnecessarily burdensome petition requirements.
Elections should involve choice. Gerrymandering makes it too easy for elections to become coronations. Multiparty candidates with multiparty debates are the norm in dozens of other Western countries. Their election seasons are marked by more political and economic debate, more discussion of a wider range of ideas. This is one reason that voter turnout tends to be significantly higher in those societies compared with our dismal turnout levels.
The more we keep voters in a weakened state, the more we nullify their votes in favor of the agendas of the corporate players. Their commercial interests are increasingly overriding our civic interests. Congress has forgotten the warnings of its better forebears, its wisest presidents, and its prescient jurists, who could see the incompatibility between limitless corporate power and a deliberative democratic society. As Thomas Jefferson observed, the purpose of representative government is to curb “the excesses of the monied interests.” Today, sadly, its primary role is to serve those interests. Far from resisting this influence, most members of Congress have become small businesses—fundraising businesses—unto themselves. In 2010, the average member of the House spent 1.4 million per election, and the average U.S. senator $7 million.
They raise this money phone call by phone call, fundraiser by fundraiser, week after week. That’s what it takes when you’re a small business trying to keep your enterprise afloat—and to keep a steady flow of income from friendly suppliers.
All this may seem like reason for despair. But it’s not. Why? Because, for as much influence as these companies may have, we still have the one thing they lack: the vote. Each congressional district has about 650,000 men, women, and children. At least two-thirds of them are eligible voters. A large majority of Americans think our country is going in the wrong direction and that corporations have too much control over their lives.
On many, if not most, of the solutions we’ve discussed in this book, there is already a majority consensus, in some cases overwhelming. But there are no organizations that are focused specifically on lobbying congressional representatives to pursue these historically overdue changes of direction for our nation. It’s not that our country doesn’t already have groups dedicated to positive change. There are thousands of such groups trying to address broader needs and abuses in their communities. But many of them are poorly funded, and they’re fighting great odds. They perform valuable charitable services, and most of them score enough victories to keep the flame of democracy alive. Still, Congress feels little pressure from these good people—and, when they do, most representatives have learned how to give them the kind of polite brush-off that can feel like friendship.
Of course, there are also examples of real changes arising from citizen demands back home. How else did Congress respond to the civil rights, nuclear arms control, environmental, consumer, women’s rights, and worker safety movements, as well as the enactment of Medicare? Today, however, there is an ominous and deepening trend on Capitol Hill. As corporate outrages become worse and more brazen—witness the recent corporate crime wave, the corporate speculative binge that collapsed the economy, the immense contracting raids on the tax-payers, and the prevailing attitude that some corporations are simply too big to fail—our lawmakers have failed to provide the resources and penalties to bring these outlaws to justice.
It’s no longer a matter of intense external lobbying. More and more, the corporations are our government. Their officials become high government officials; they perform governmental, even military and national security, functions under contracts; they finance political careers; and they feed public cynicism by lowering our expectations for what government can achieve for the people. The democracy gap is widening as Washington meets more and more problems with poor decisions or inaction. Urged to contact their congressional representatives, more and more people reply, “Why bother? It won’t do any good.” Cynicism leads to withdrawal—just as the power brokers want. Skepticism is a more positive alternative to cynicism, because skepticism leaves a door open to the possibility of resurgence. Despite how profoundly the decisions of our Congress affect us all, how many people do you know spend as much time watching Congress in the course of a year as they spend working for one day? Or even one hour?
The corporate oligarchy has knocked the instinct for rebellion—worse yet, any real sense of engagement—out of the American people. The continual decline in living standards, the increase in absolute and relative poverty, the outsourcing of jobs to serf labor dictatorships, the explosion in home foreclosures, the tens of millions without health insurance, the widespread decline in wages, the growing hostility toward unions, the bailouts rewarding corporate greed and recklessness, the growing feeling that our lives are being treated unfairly—all provide fertile ground for skepticism to spark a new movement for fairness in American life.
All that must happen is for Americans to reach their breaking point and to organize and commit to make a difference in the society they want to hand to their descendants. That’s how the Occupy movement got started; its long-term fortunes remain to be seen, but its message—born of deep skepticism about income inequality in America—lives on as the seed corn for resurgence.
Imagine this: Two football teams meet in a huge stadium. There are a hundred thousand screaming fans backing Team A, but only a thousand fans rooting for Team B. Team B comes onto the field first, all eleven of them ready for battle. Three minutes later, Team A comes out of the walkway—but it has only one athlete who has to play all eleven positions at once. Impossible, right? No contest! A massive blowout results. Team A represents the citizens who stand up for what most Americans want—fairness and justice. Team A is on the side of the angels—but it has nowhere near enough players to make an impact on the opposing team.
What does it take to make a difference in Congress? Whatever side you’re on, the energy of a new civic movement can do it—especially when it’s the only pulse around. In 1980, it was the Moral Majority, led by the Reverend Jerry Falwell. In 2009, it was the Tea Party—largely a revolt by the conservative wing of the Republican Party against all things Washington, including the performance of both major parties. Both movements received major media attention, despite the fact that neither one had more than a few hundred thousand members who were willing to join marches, attend congressional town meetings, or even protest loudly in a local public forum. The Washington Post tried tallying the members of the various Tea Party groups nationwide, but it could find little more than three hundred thousand members. Still, both the Moral Majority and the Tea Party shook up Congress and shifted its orientation to a more right-wing view of politics.
We are long overdue for a progressive movement that can reverse that trend. One way to bring this about is to organize Congressional Watchdog Groups (CWDs) to monitor each of the 435 districts across the country—to lobby all members of Congress on behalf of their constituents, on behalf of an agenda supported by a majority of Americans. It needs to be and is consistent with the rhythms of our society’s expectations for our country: expectations that consider them overdue, necessary, ordinary, attainable, and pertinent to peoples’ needs and sense of justice.
This agenda should include full Medicare for all; a decent living wage; strong law enforcement on corporate crime and fraud; taxing socially damaging phenomena—such as pollution or Wall Street speculation—before workers’ income; and so on. The agenda can be expressed in a pledge to be signed by one thousand people per district—people who support these changes, who raise or give two hundred dollars a year to the cause, and who volunteer two hundred hours per year to support the group. This thousand-person base will be a seed group, who will work in turn to reach a second one thousand people making the same commitment.
The first thousand would use their donations and local connections to secure two offices per district, operated by two full-time advocate/organizers in each office, plus the work of the committed volunteers. All these groups would work closely with others across the country on this common agenda. The first thousand members of each CWD will be interviewed to ensure their seriousness, sincerity, and commitment to volunteer time. The CWDs should follow flexible criteria for admission, to account for differing levels of experience, knowledge, temperament, and openness to self-education.
The most important thing is that the members all enter into the group in general agreement with the agenda; that should reduce the likelihood of any major policy conflict, leaving only interpersonal friction as a potential distraction. Experience shows that personality conflicts can be minimized by keeping all eyes on external hurdles and shared goals.
The CWDs would direct their energies toward three goals: (1) enlisting other citizens and groups in each district; (2) coordinating with other districts in joint campaigns; and, most important, (3) getting the 535 members of Congress to review and adopt their agenda. Many of the avenues available today to citizens who want to influence elected politicians are stagnant and amateurish. To be sure, there are cases throughout history when populist movements have secured footholds in key positions in the House and Senate.However, times have changed for the worse. Most of the health and safety breakthroughs of the 1960s and 1970s—from auto safety legislation, to regulatory frameworks for air and water pollution, to product and job safety codes—would not receive a serious public hearing today, much less get to the Senate or House floor for a vote. The deterioration of our corporatized Congress has been that profound.
The CWDs would familiarize themselves with their congressional representatives and with the circles—lobbying, ideological, even social—that influence their performance. They would know their district’s makeup, its needs, its conflicts, its potential for coalition building, its talent, its media outlets, its best venues for communicating to citizens at large for the common good. They would establish a process of regular public meetings with their representative and (less frequently) with their senators.
The CWD advocates and members should be fully informed about the issues—and their legislators—to make it clear that they’re here to stay, that they plan on increasing their supporters and influence, and that, from the local congressional offices to Capitol Hill, they’ll be making their agenda a daily subject of attention. When it comes to the potential seriousness and longevity of dustups and protests in their home territory, lawmakers have their antennae exquisitely tuned to detect the first signs of weakness or flagging interest.
The CWDs should be sure that every campaign it launches sends a strenuously determined signal—a signal that the movement is in it for the duration, building inexorably toward victory. As the CWDs start seeing their congressional members begin to listen, to grapple with their issues, to introduce legislation supporting elements of the agenda, more people will join as volunteers, canvassers, and fundraisers.
A vibrant online network should keep neighboring CWDs informed about their progress, learning from and stimulating one another in both a collaborative and competitive manner. Once any people’s movement starts using facts, reason, and reality to respond to the felt necessities of a society, within a broad public philosophy of compassion and fair play, a dynamism catches on to replace resigned cynicism with excitement and engagement.
Unexpected skills and insights are offered. The least likely people come forward, having shucked their frustrations about what is happening to their beloved country. All kinds of serendipities flower—to nourish the feeling that it can happen!
The prime movers in any CWD would be its four full-time staff members—let’s call them the CWD dynamos. Their goal, backed by thousands of committed volunteer hours, would be to build a vibrant problem-solving and results-oriented civic culture. They would serve as community educators, constantly speaking with small groups, service clubs, students, and senior citizen centers about the agenda. They would send petitions and endorsements of the agenda to members of Congress, with copies to the White House. They would raise money from individual donors and recruit more volunteers to donate time and effort to the cause. They would make themselves accessible to the people on a regular basis, to share their insights on issues of importance to the district—from successful projects that deserve to be celebrated to wrongdoing that needs to be corrected. They would manage summer projects for high school, college, and graduate students. And they would focus relentlessly on public accountability, holding well-publicized sessions with representatives during their visits home. In these visits, the CWD dynamos and their members should challenge their representatives to answer certain fundamental questions—from “How are you going to help us become more powerful as citizens?” to “Why should we vote for you?” The dynamos best qualified to draft legislation would form working committees to turn the agenda into workable law.
Other inter-CWD committees would focus on districts represented by key members of Congress considering specific bills and would respond actively to the floor debates on these bills in the House and Senate. Tailored to the need, many dynamos would travel to Washington on an as-needed basis to lobby their members during the final stages of action on any pressing new bill as a long-overdue counterweight to established corporate lobbyists.
The CWD groups will have to be prepared to field a backlash by corporate interests. These will include Washington trade associations, corporate law firms, PACs, public relations propagandists, and their dealers, agents, and other allies back in the districts. Keeping the agenda very concrete will help to keep the opponents at bay. The focus of the pressure should be from the grassroots to Washington without being distracted by local controversies. The agenda needs to be placed on a fast track; for example, universal health care insurance was proposed by President Harry Truman, but it has dragged on as an issue to this day.
Democracy can never be a reality in our daily lives until citizens strive daily to meet the responsibilities it involves. The vast imbalance between the rampaging power of commercial interests and the pitiful, fitful amount of power exercised by citizens is driving our country into the ground.
To those who would question whether such CWD groups can ever succeed, given the present complexion of the corporate Congress, it’s worth looking back to a success story from the 1960s. In those days, Senator Warren Magnuson (D-WA) was the powerful chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. He was the darling of the business lobbies and for good reason: he delivered for them. Then, starting in the mid-1960s, the rumble of public discontent began to travel from Seattle across the country to the District of Columbia. We the People raised our voices in protest against the Vietnam War; against discrimination, sexism, consumer fraud, and environmental contamination.
To make a grand story short, Senator Magnuson hired a new, enlightened staff, and in the decade from 1965 to 1975, he passed a historic string of consumer protection legislation, starting with auto and tire safety legislation in 1966. Try as they might, the corporate lobbies could not get to Magnuson. Why? Because he’d heard the rumblings of an awakened populace. The public mood had turned decisively. Senator Magnuson read the tea leaves; his successful 1968 reelection campaign carried the slogan “Keep the Big Boys Honest.” Similar but less dramatic transformations occurred throughout the Senate and the House in those uplifting days. The auto safety bill passed the House unanimously with Republicans and Democrats voting alike. Bill after bill passed in similar fashion, helping to protect and advance the rights of ordinary people in their environment and in the marketplace—many of them signed by President Richard Nixon. It led one advocate to quip, “If the people are mobilized back home and make their demands known, I don’t care who is in Congress, just so long as they can read and write.”
That must be the feeling that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has absorbed from its extraordinary ability to routinely and quickly get more than 90 percent of the Senate and House to sign on to its resolutions backing any number of Israeli government positions vis-à-vis the occupied and repressed Palestinian people and its neighboring states.
When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed a joint session of Congress in June 2011, he received from both party faithfuls fifty-nine ovations, of which twenty-nine were standing hoo-rahs—a historic record in Congress. No president has ever come close to such aerobic unanimity. The lawmakers were jumping up and down in response to the organized forces back home led by AIPAC, complete with money from PACs, pressure, and persistence. There was a time when AIPAC and its predecessors had very little political or media power.
Right into World War II, the New York Times, Congress, and the White House declined to heed the pleas of those Americans who knew of the ongoing slaughter of European Jews. The civic, political, and economic power of the pro-Israeli government lobbies came from constant hard work and peer pressure driven by those horrible memories. Now neither the oil companies nor the Pentagon nor the State Department can stand up to AIPAC and its demonizing and retaliatory tactics. They have lost so often that they hardly even try in recent years.
To be sure, each episode of civic influence over Congress happens under unique characteristics of time, place, and substance that cannot provide uniformly comparable lessons to be emulated. But case studies of lobbyist influence—whether by the NRA, the AARP, the NAACP, MADD, or consumer protection groups—can reveal strategies and tactics that can be useful to the CWDs.
Mark Green, author of the book Who Runs Congress?, wrote in 1972: Some citizens, peering into the chasm between congressional potential and congressional failure, may understandably shrug their shoulders in indifference. “But mixed among all the cases of sloth, corruption, insensitivity to injustice, and massive lobbying are remarkable instances of citizen power.”
Congress has been moved by men and women with no special wealth or influence, little or no political experience, and no uncommon genius, but with the modest combination of commitment to a cause and the facts to make a case. Not often, but enough to show the way, citizen advocates have taken on industrial giants, bureaucratic inertia, public indifference, antipathy to “troublemakers”—and they have won, or at least made a difference.
True enough, but these successes were episodic, unable to follow through after legislative enactment to the all-important stage of enforcement or implementation. Moreover their experience and energy did not accumulate into ever better state-of-the-art civic effectiveness or, perchance, institutionalization. Citizen lobbying today—apart from the Internet—is pretty much about as advanced as it was fifty years ago. We still await the Internet’s use to actually get people acting together in addition to knowing what is going on in the world. Congress had a long tradition of shielding corporate misbehavior from the rule of law and turning Congress and the executive branch into a bustling bazaar of tax subsidies, tax privileges, protection from competition, inflated government contracts, and other assorted windfalls. Congress constantly disregards evidence in its own committee hearings, as well as damning reports by its nonpartisan investigator, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), and often declines to take action—or perversely enacts laws to weaken protections or facilitate boondoggles. As I noted nearly thirty years ago: “Congress as a whole has managed to avoid passage of responsive legislation to meet the problems of energy, taxes, health insurance, inflation, and unemployment. It has not faced up to the relentless concentration of multinational corporate power over the economy. . . .” Sound familiar?
The same is true today. The corporate world is always searching for ways to tighten its grip over the public authority of Congress. It stands to reason, then, that We the People must find ways to intensify our own grip on our future. If we want to continue to enjoy the (relative) freedom and security of our private lives, we must exercise our rights as public citizens, whether by helping to end poverty or by fostering an economy based on the idea that people matter first. In a presumed democratic republic like the United States, the ultimate governmental power is supposed to reside in the people.
In the interest of practicality and expertise, the people delegate much of the daily exercise of this power to elected legislatures, which on the national level means Congress. But this delegation of authority shouldn’t mean disengagement from the responsibilities of citizenship. Our system can only work if our citizens are organized and vigilant in monitoring the ways our 535 representatives, who each year speak for larger and larger populations, are using the power we grant them. Otherwise delegation will become abdication—first by the people, and then inevitably by Congress, until it falls conclusively into the hands of the corporate supremacists.
Most Americans don’t spend much time trying to correct this disengagement from Congress. They tend to spend time worrying about much more immediate concerns: health care, unemployment, schools, taxes, fraud, housing, prices, crime, traffic, pollution, injustice, poverty. Yet these are the problems that Congress is supposed to be working to solve. Since Congress is the branch of our government that should be most responsive to democratic demands, shifting its priorities should be the CWDs’ most immediate priority.
This task should become part of daily life for all Americans—from mothers fighting for safety rights to college students arguing for student loan reform and there could be community and four-year colleges in every congressional district—studying and regularly publicizing the performance of their representatives and senators for political science credits.
We all need to take responsibility for a more assertive form of self-government. It’s up to us—our sense of justice, our faith in people, and our sense of commitment to making ours a better society and world. Every major improvement starts small, with a conversation, a gathering, a local action. Activity begets activity. Two centuries of delegation have run their course. Let us not delay today what should have been launched decades ago: a new system that gives the people oversight over their own representatives. It can, and should, be the start of an American renaissance.
The gap between Congress and We the People—the gap in wealth, power, privilege, and accountability—has never been wider. The people who came to rallies all over the country during my presidential campaigns made this point again and again. They expressed outrage, to be sure, at the Washington scandals of the day. But the most instant and passionate applause came when I made two simple suggestions, two simple one-paragraph bills that would prevent a lot of problems: First: Before the Washington politicians plunge our country into another undeclared or declared war overseas, they should be informed that all their able-bodied and qualified children and grandchildren will be drafted into the armed services. That should make them think twice about making war. Even as Congress acceded to the lies and deceptions of the imperial Bush presidency and countenanced the invasion of Iraq, only six elected representatives had children in the military. Second: The members of Congress can have no benefits unless the American people all share in those benefits universally. There would be no health insurance, no life insurance, no lush pensions, and no accessible gym facilities for the 535 members of Congress unless they saw fit to provide these benefits for all.
Why did these two ideas get such overwhelming support? Because, whatever their political differences, what the American people value most is fair play. So how can these two proposals gain headway in the very national legislature that has to enact them? The first step is to start a public conversation about the growing gaps between the supposed people’s representatives and those who sent them there. In a front-page article titled “Economic Downturn Took a Detour at Capitol Hill,” the New York Times reported: Nearly half of all members of Congress—250 in all—[are millionaires,] and the wealth gap between lawmakers and their constituents appears to be growing quickly, even as Congress debates unemployment benefits, possible cuts in food stamps and a “millionaire’s tax.” . . . With millionaire status now the norm, the rarefied air in the Capitol these days is $100 million. That lofty level appears to have been surpassed by at least 10 members, led by Representative Darrell Issa, a California Republican and former auto alarm magnate who is worth somewhere between $195 million and $700 million. And yet consider: even as the gap between our wealthiest citizens (including our representatives) and average Americans rises, worker productivity has been on a constant rise during this period—and the federal minimum wage, adjusted for inflation, has fallen well below its 1968 level!
Working Americans are working longer for less money, and their representatives are pocketing the difference. Congress has always been skittish about giving itself the pay increases it would love to have. In 1989, to avoid certain backlash from public hearings and public debate on their pay, the law- makers put their salaries on an automatic cost-of-living adjustment (COLA). This meant that their annual pay would increase every year unless they acted to reverse the provision. From 2000 through 2010, the members’ pay increased nine times. All this attention and reward cannot but go to the heads of the congressionally anointed lawmakers, and they respond accordingly.
The members of Congress enjoy many unique arrangements. They get to police their own ethics; they arrange for their own multiple freebies; and they imperially exempt themselves from a wide array of major laws—including the Freedom of Information Act, the Privacy Act, the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989, and until recently the Insider Trading Act, which is under revision after recent exposés. Members of Congress are even exempt from state and municipal taxes. Another, more dangerous exemption came to light when the workers who operate the steam pipe network deep beneath the congressional buildings in D.C. rose in protest over serious asbestos and excessive heat conditions in the tunnels. These catacombs were so dangerous that members of Congress were prohibited by the Capitol Police from going down there—and yet tunnel workers were forced to toil there for years as the conditions went uncorrected. As my sister Dr. Claire Nader (who administers the Joe A. Callaway Award for Civic Courage) said, “The Architect of the Capitol callously disregarded the health consequences of asbestos exposure that tunnel crew members endured and the risk of major injuries, including death, from collapsing concrete tunnel sections, as well as inadequate emergency communications and escape exits.”
In the past four decades, Congress has become less productive and more self-rewarding than ever. More than thirty years ago, when Congress actually enacted useful legislation and conducted oversight hearings, Missouri congressman Richard Bolling said that “more and more people are coming to understand that the Congress doesn’t work,” and California congressman Ron Dellums called senators and representatives “mediocre prima donnas who pass legislation that has nothing to do with the reality of misery in this country.” If they thought their fellow legislators were bad, imagine how they would feel about today’s
gerrymandered and gridlocked and callous Congress.
It’s all well and good for citizens back home to present their legislators with calls for reform. But these proposals, without the laser focus of congressional watchdog groups, will fall on deaf ears. What will get their attention? The fastest way to get a reaction from your representative may be by making an in personam demand—a gesture that speaks directly to the welfare of the representative and his or her family. For instance, a demand to reduce congressional pay to match that of the average worker in their district would certainly get a representative’s attention—especially if accompanied by a bill drafted and signed by thousands of constituents, and promoted in a well-publicized ceremony. This is the cry for equality to replace the widening imbalance between the lawmakers and the taxpayers.
We can make similar demands to remove all exemptions from laws that Congress enjoys. We should do so, out of respect for the principle of equality under the law. The moral authority to govern, so debased, would begin to recover with each such leveling gesture—especially when the less high-minded senators and representatives start retiring under such pressure and retreat to the wildly enriching prospect of becoming a lobbyist down on Washington’s K Street to the reward of more than half a million dollars a year.
The most personal of in personam demands are those I invoked at the start of this chapter. Lest it seem extreme to demand that our elected representatives send their children and grandchildren into battle if Congress and the White House plunges our country into another war, recall that FDR had four sons in the armed forces during World War II and Dwight D. Eisenhower’s son John was a career army officer. In the years since the end of World War II, our wars have been wars of choice, undeclared by Congress despite the requirements of Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution. Our representatives should have this kind of skin in the game; if they did, it would surely make the members more wary of warmongering propaganda and more willing to deliberate seriously rather than easily give in to the White House. If this provision had been in place in 2003, for instance, we would have never invaded Iraq, for the lies and deceptions behind the invasion would have been exposed by the public hearings and the dissenters.
We need a grassroots drive under the slogan “If it’s good for you, it’s good for us.” A majority of Americans favor Medicare for all, with free choice of physician and hospital. If asked, they would likely favor the same kind of pension plans that Congress has given itself.
The privileges accorded to members of Congress by the Constitution do not extend to normal criminal laws. Although observers believe that these laws have not been adequately enforced when applied to members of Congress, there have been close to one hundred criminal prosecutions of senators and representatives since 1945. Members of Congress have been jailed for bribery, tax evasion, kickback schemes, perjury, using campaign funds for personal expense, conspiracy to defraud government, extortion, and obstruction of justice. Yet no member has ever been prosecuted for violating the oath of office, with its promise to abide by the Constitution—despite the fact that appropriating funds for undeclared wars amounts to just such a violation. Such violations in principle by members of Congress do not trigger criminal or civil laws. At what point is a campaign contribution a bribe and at what point is it, as the longtime news anchor David Brinkley called it, “legalized bribery”? It depends on the facts of each case, especially whether the tendered money is disclosed as campaign contributions or goes personally to the legislator under the table.
The widespread practice of corporations funding the campaigns of key committee members and other influential lawmakers who are directly in charge of supervising the corporations’ commercial interests has somehow escaped being interpreted as bribery. Thus, when corporations that want to protect sugar quotas, oil company tax breaks, deferred air pollution rules, the granting of pipeline or broadcast licenses, or the procurement of bailouts target key lawmakers for contributions, these exchanges are not considered bribes—even though everyone knows that the contributions are being tendered in exchange for legislative services rendered. Such institutionalized corruption among members of Congress affects how this branch of government exercises its constitutionally prescribed role to act as a check on the president and the executive branch. What Congress would be willing to initiate impeachment proceedings against a sitting president when the Justice Department and the media might well turn to Capitol Hill and ask, “What about you?”
Over the years, our presidents have also managed to square off an ever- broadening zone of immunity for behavior that should be impeachable or actionable under federal criminal laws. This is especially true in the area of military/foreign affairs, but it’s equally true of such matters as secret unilateral Wall Street bailouts, for example. Yet, except for their exposure to the normal criminal and civil laws for personal misbehavior, the risk of prosecution for official duties is controlled by the impeachment clause of the Constitution.
In cases of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” the president’s grand jury and courtroom are the House of Representative and the U.S. Senate, respectively. Congress has viewed the impeachment power as a rarely used tool for presidential accountability. It is invoked even more rarely in areas where Congress has abdicated its constitutional authority or responsibility to the president.
Without the exercise of the impeachment power, presidents would face no repercussions for their official actions, as it is very unlikely that presidents would be pursued under criminal laws after leaving office. The only recent exception was the special Watergate task force in the Justice Department that was preparing to have a grand jury indict Richard Nixon for Watergate-related crimes when Gerald Ford pardoned him in 1974. President Obama echoed Ford’s gesture when he declared that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney would be subject to no special investigation under his watch.
So holding the president accountable is a responsibility Congress can abdicate at will, abandoning its fundamental oversight roles and allowing the executive branch to do its work in an unconstitutional and illegal manner. The Bush administration was so arrogant in its attitude toward executive privilege that it greeted a series of detailed American Bar Association White Papers outlining his unconstitutional behavior on three counts (signing statements, illegal surveillance, and an unprecedented presidential power grab that threatened the separation of powers) with a contemptuous silence.
But it’s the war-making behavior of both Presidents Bush and Obama that truly defy belief. These presidents’ escalating military operations, the product of a “unitary presidency,” in the words of their apologists—others might call it an imperial presidency—have escaped the reach of law, court, Congress, and the American public.
President Obama—a former lecturer in constitutional law at the University of Chicago—seems determined to explore the outer reaches of his power. He initiated a war against Libya, together with NATO allies and the endorsement of the Arab League and a UN resolution. Exceeding even George W. Bush, he was attacking a government that presented no imminent threat to the United States with neither a war declaration nor even an evasive war resolution from Congress. Nor did he ask for congressional authorization or appropriation for use in over- throwing the Libyan dictatorship. Instead, President Obama himself authorized and appropriated funds from the Pentagon and Central Intelligence budgets under his control. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that even U.S. actions taken under the authority of a UN resolution must still conform with the U.S. Constitution. In the case of President Obama’s Libyan war, there was no conformity and were no challengers.
Indeed, short of calling for the president’s impeachment, no individual member of Congress or private citizen could raise any formal challenge to the president’s war-making action without having the attempt dismissed because the complainants had no standing to sue. Moreover, the courts would declare any judicial challenge to be “political” and thus a matter not for them but for the legislative and executive branches to resolve.
The zone of executive immunity was further enlarged by the latest Obama doctrine, described as follows by constitutional lawyer Bruce Fein: Through the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012 and acquiescence in repeated executive usurpations, Congress has empowered President Obama to kill any person anywhere in the world who is secretly listed as an enemy on a list that’s reminiscent of the Lord High Executioner’s “Little List” in The Mikado. The putative “battlefield” is boundless. The standards for listing are secret. The evidence justifying a listing is secret. The legal justification for the assassinations is secret. The secrecy persists after the alleged enemy target is vaporized. No proof is proffered that the corpse had conspired or attempted or had actually engaged in hostilities against the United States; or, that capturing the victim for criminal prosecution or detention would have been unfeasible. Instead, the White House summons into being as its defense a counter-constitutional divine doctrine of presidential infallibility when it comes to killing suspected enemies. Due process is buried in the detritus of “collateral damage.” An amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012, following repeated congressional inaction toward such executive overreaches, only affirmed the complicity of Congress, not the constitutionality of the actions authorized by this legislation.
A democratic society committed to “the rule of law,” not the rule of men, cannot exist if it allows its president to be above and beyond the law, able to usurp otherwise lawful instruments of enforcement and defense for unlawful means and ends. Where are the first responders to this expanding dictatorial behavior by the White House—the one million lawyers who are officers of the court, the hundreds of law professors, and the scores of law school deans? Except for a very noble few, they have remained silent, preoccupied with their daily professional obligations.
How can we expect uninformed citizens to be alarmed when our own attorneys at law see no reason to challenge a wide array of executive malfeasance—including arrests without charges, indefinite imprisonment in military prisons, illegal wiretapping, state secrets that terminate judicial remedies, extraordinary rendition, and torture? All of these illegal acts have now been gathered under the umbrella of presidential powers. Indeed, illegal wiretapping—once a felony under the FISA Act—is now allowed. As the ACLU has noted, “In 2001 . . . President Bush authorized the National Security Agency (NSA) to launch a warrantless wiretapping program, and in 2008 Congress ratified and expanded that program, giving the NSA almost unchecked power to monitor Americans’ international phone calls and emails.”
By definition, a democracy governed by the rule of law cannot be a “trust the leader” system. It cannot tolerate an executive power that acts as secret prosecutor, judge, jury, prison warden, and executioner. A Congress that allows such violations of the Constitution, of statutes, of international treaties, and of procedural due process—by funding them and looking the other way as the action continues—is betraying the republic it purports to serve.
The separation of powers that is at the heart of the American governmental system with its checks and balances has been abandoned by the limitless, anywhere “war on terror.” The American public has been blocked from even contesting this breakdown in court on the grounds that we have no standing to sue. All these modes of congressional and presidential waywardness combine in a seamless web of immunities.
We must correct this imbalance by reminding our elected representatives that they are not beyond the law. That they must reclaim their constitutional responsibility to oversee the conduct of the executive branch. And that they can no longer stand by in silent assent as our government becomes a growing zone of dictatorial overreach and social injustice. We must challenge them to fight for a better system—a system that involves accepting the same risks of law enforcement that apply to their constituents.
* From: The Seventeen Solutions: Bold Ideas for Our American Future
by Ralph Nader
Harper Paperbacks; Original edition (October 2, 2012)
Organizing a Congress Watch Local
For your local Congress Watch to be effective, you must have active support from as many organizations and people as possible. This requires some community organizing — recruiting neighbors, activating existing groups, and bringing people to together.
Start by making two inventories.
First, make an inventory of all groups in your Congressional district that could potentially be interested in endorsing or supporting you work Congress Watch work : church groups, civil rights groups, city and state governments, government agencies, Democratic Party, Republican Party, student groups, good government groups (e.g. Common Cause, League of Women Voters, Indivisible, etc.), consumer groups, public interest groups, and unions. Go through the list, find out who runs each group, and try to schedule a meeting with them to share what you doing with Congress Watch.
Second, make an inventory of all the channels through which you might be able to get the word out: farmer’s markets where you can set up a table, festivals where you can set up a table, newspapers, neighborhood email lists, public bulletin boards, coffee shops. Go through the list and plan how you are going to get the word out through each channel.
A good first “ask” for community groups and neighbors you meet while getting the word out is to attend a kickoff meeting. There you can discuss the idea of a Congress Watch, identify people who want to get more involved, delegate responsibilities and agree on a weekly meeting time.
Once you have a core group organized, one
good way to educate the community about your agenda is to set up a speaker's bureau. Draw up a list of people in the community who can speak about your agenda. Posters, bumper stickers, t-shirts and buttons are a great way to convey a short message. But make sure you are giving the full story. People want and need to know more than a few catchy slogans before they will support your agenda.
The key to success is to get word about your agenda to as many groups as possible.
Interest: Your message should contain some personal interest to the audience (e.g., everyone suffers when health care costs are exorbitant.)
And in attracting attention and establishing credibility for your agenda, your message must be clear and concise. Think of your own experience: What catches your eye? What do you find easy to look at and read?
Enthusiasm: You should promote your agenda wherever people go (to school, to eat, to the game, to shop, to the bar, etc.).
Novelty: The use of novel methods of communication to catch people's attention should ensure success. Ideas include posters in public places, creative public demonstrations, social media campaigns ... use your imagination.
Civility: When dealing with the general public, one should be civil, professional, and good-natured.
Consistency: Observing a common theme or graphic design in your publicity drive will help people identify your agenda. For example, have your petitions, posters and stationery convey one common message: "It is time to for Congress to work for the People!”
Ask local groups in your congressional district to adopt a resolution supporting your agenda.
Such groups include churches, the city council, civil rights organizations, and labor groups.
Obtain the editorial support for your agenda from newspapers in your congressional district.
1. Write a letter to the editor of each newspaper in your congressional district describing your agenda.
2. Appear on local radio or television shows in your congressional district to promote your agenda.
3. Obtain a resolution from your local/state government supporting your agenda.
Send a letter to your member of Congress asking him/her to support your agenda.
Hold a news conference to announce:
1. Your agenda;
2. A public demonstration to show support for your agenda; and/or
3. A resolution by a local group in support of your agenda.
Distribute information in a public place with petitions and pledge cards supporting in support of your agenda.
Go door-to-door (canvass) in your neighborhood or city seeking signatures for a petition in support of your agenda.
You can use email and social media in a number of ways to mobilize potential activists. You should be able to spread news of your agenda by posting to websites and sharing information through social media (i.e. Facebook and Twitter).
Some of the things you can do with email include:
Set up an email list for people who want to be informed about your efforts to advance your agenda. You can share information about meetings, demonstrations, town meetings, delegation meetings with your member of congress, meetings with editorial boards, news conferences, etc.
Action alerts about your agenda can also be forwarded to relevant discussion lists. Make sure the topic is relevant to the list. Do not spam lists with messages or alerts unrelated to purpose of the lists.
Some Dos and Don'ts for Sending Action Alerts via Email:
Keep the text short and focused
Make the subject line clear and compelling
Include your contact information
Spam individuals or lists
Use wide margins, multiple fonts, colors, etc.
Post to discussion lists that don’t deal with the substance of your agenda
Leave the subject line blank
Your website should include fact sheets, model letters, a chronology of the work your Congress Watch coalition is doing (updated regularly), photos of relevant events (such as demonstrations) and news updates.
Make sure you have a link to your email address so people can contact you, as well as a Frequently Asked Questions section, so that you can avoid as much as possible having to answer standard questions.
Before you decide to launch the site, make sure you have the resources to build and maintain it. Is this the best use of your resources? Are there others with whom you can collaborate? Will a volunteer do it? Make sure whoever does it knows how to design your interaction tools and customize the site to be easier to retrieve by any search engine. Stick to the core message. Keep the web site focused, updated, and fresh.
Make sure your web site is advertised on posters, stickers, bumper stickers, etc.
Remember, email or social media is more popular than most web sites. Continue to bring people back to your site by pushing it to mailing lists, email lists, newsgroups, Twitter and Facebook followers, and flyers. But avoid relying on the web to the exclusion of other means of promoting the agenda of your local Congress Watch coalition. The web can't substitute for all other forms of activism.
Cross-posting information means that the same message is posted to more than one discussion list or news group. If you receive many complaints about multiple copies of messages, reduce the number of lists and news groups that you post to.
Another web-based tool you can use is the electronic petition. Like traditional petitions, online petitions enable people not actively involved in an organization or cause to demonstrate support. Make sure you have a deadline for signing, and take it off the site once the deadline has passed. Make sure the petition gathers email addresses so you can follow up with action alerts and news about your agenda.
A sign-on letter is like a petition, but instead of maximizing the number of signatures, you are trying to recruit prominent local figure and local group leaders to sign the letter. Sometimes a letter signed by five prominent group leaders is more effective at convincing an elected official to do something than a letter signed by 1,000 random citizens. One tactic for making a sign-on letter press worthy is to focus on a theme: ex. “10 former city council members,” “100 local scientists,” “25 faith community leaders.”
Your leaflets should be concise, with a single theme or message. Cartoons are an effective attention-grabber. Limit leaflets to one-page. Plan the timing of the distribution of your leaflet. Respond to issues, attacks and events; have it coincide with speeches, announcements, rallies, petition drives, etc.
Posters can be a highly effective medium of communication. There are two basic types of messages which you can advertise on a poster. First, you can advertise a meeting, an event, or some action you are taking (such as a petition drive). Such posters must convey specifics (time, place, purpose), but also must attract attention.
The second type is intended just to keep your local Congress Watch coalition in the eyes of the public. These posters rely on slogans, symbols, quotes, etc. If possible, try to find a person skilled in art design who is sympathetic to your agenda campaign. The quality of your posters will improve!
Nearly all stations have some sort of calendar of events from which the host or disc-jockey will make public service announcements (PSAs) of local meetings or events. You may want to have stations in your area announce a meeting of citizens formulating a new local Congress Watch coalition. Call the stations and ask them how you can have your meeting publicized. Most stations require your PSA two weeks in advance of the time you want the message aired. Write two versions of your PSA, one that would take 15 seconds for the host to read and one 30 seconds. Write your PSA simply and with a sense of urgency.
Radio promotions can be extremely effective. With a computer or smartphone you can produce your own radio promo for optimal cost. If you cannot find a professional writer, any imaginative writer will be adequate. The only expenses involved should relate to the production of the recording. There should be no expenses to air your recording; the radio station should present it as a public service announcement.
Most radio stations have talk shows that seek interesting topics. Call the stations in your area and ask for the public affairs director and suggest your agenda as a topic. Let the station know that you are an organizer with the local Congress Watch coalition.
Obtaining Signatures for Petitions
The Table Method
1. Table Locations
Tables should be set up in locations with a large volume of pedestrian traffic. The flow must be relatively steady for an extended period of time. Desirable places include shopping malls, plazas, food and discount stores, factory gates, downtown sidewalks, concerts, festivals and university campuses. For shopping centers and other private property, prior approval should be obtained.
2. Table Set-Up
Using a metal folding table or two card tables next to each other, securely tape a maximum number of petitions to three exposed sides of the tables. To attract attention, decorate the table with colorful, simple message signs. Keep plenty of pens and petitions available, and keep the table neat and clean, positioned so that pedestrians can be directed toward it easily.
3. Table Tricks
At least two volunteers work each table; one in front and one behind the table. The volunteer out front greets each person walking by and asks if he or she supports the issue in question. If "yes," the person is directed to the table. (There should be two or three clipboards with petitions so that more than one person at a time can sign it.) As the person moves toward the table, the volunteer behind the table (standing) offers a pen. Answer any questions briefly. Never argue or debate at the table.
Keep a separate signup sheet for people interested in volunteering for future events.
The Canvass Method
Another way to build support involves the canvass. Approaching people at home or work and asking them to sign a petition in support of your agenda will yield the most signatures for your petition.
Set a goal to canvass a pre-determined number of streets in your city or neighborhood. Assign a group of people to canvass specific streets in a residential neighborhood or business district.
Remember, you will be entering private property. After someone answers your knock on the door, give your name and state that you are seeking support for your agenda. Answer any questions and have the person sign the petition pledging their support.
Dealing with the Media
Letter to Newspaper Editors
One way to build support for your local Congress Watch coalition is to send a letter to newspapers in your state. Make sure to include your name and phone number or email address. After sending the letter, call the newspaper and encourage it to print it. Write the letter in your own words, expressing your feelings. Include important points to support your argument.
See sample letters and resolutions at the end of this packet for examples on what you might say.
To increase the chance that a paper prints your letter, remember these important points:
1. Keep it short and on target. Newspapers will cut a long letter down to 250-350 words.
2. Avoid flowery language and unnecessary lead-ins, such as "I'm sure everyone would agree with me that..."
3. Make reference to a recent editorial column or article.
4. Send an original, neat, preferably typed, letter. An example of a letter to the editor is attached.
The editorial support of your town's newspaper can carry tremendous weight. Have a diverse coalition of concerned groups meet with the editorial board to provide information and answer questions about the work of your local Congress Watch coalition.
Use news (or press) releases to announce events that would otherwise not receive coverage (e.g. the formulation of a new local Congress Watch coalition). Write press releases in a clear, concise news style. Write the release as you would like to see it appear in the newspaper. Read the paper closely and write your ideal story so it sounds like one of the articles you just read. That means you or your group should be referred to in the third person- "New Local Congress Watch coalition announced today ..."
Avoid editorializing; instead, to express an opinion, use direct quotations and identify the sources of all quotations. The more quotations, the better. Use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs. The first paragraph is the most important. Make the major point of the story clearly and directly. For the rest of the release, follow what journalists call the "inverted pyramid" style: the most vital information at the beginning of the release, with subsequent paragraphs arranged in order of declining importance. This allows editors to cut the story from the bottom and leave the most important information. Do not assume that the press or the public is familiar with you or your group. In the last paragraph, include a brief description of yourself or the group you represent.
If your group has a letterhead, use it if you are mailing the release. If not, head the release with the group's name, address and telephone number. In addition, at the top of the release, include the name of a person who can answer questions. Use a headline, just like a newspaper story. If the release is more than one page long, write "MORE" at the end of each page except the last. Type"###" under the final paragraph to signify the end of the release.
News releases should be sent to newspapers and radio and television stations ahead of time to give editors a chance to plan their coverage. Clearly mark the day, date, and hour you want your story released: FOR RELEASE 10 A.M., MONDAY, October 8, 2018. That means the newspapers need the release the day before the release date (preferably before noon) when they prepare the next day's news.
Do not assume special knowledge on the part of reporters. While members of the press may be able to grasp issues behind the efforts of the local Congress Watch coalition better than the general public, they are seldom experts on all the issues they cover.
A news conference can be used to announce the formulation of a new local Congress Watch coalition in your area. Here are a few things to consider when planning a news conference:
* Prepare the conference thoroughly ahead of time and rehearse it.
* Send an advisory several days before the conference to both the newspaper's assignment editor and the reporter covering the Congress and call them again the day before the conference.
* The day before the conference issue an "editor's advisory" to the Associated Press (AP) and Reuters announcing the time and place of the conference and the topic. To issue the advisory, call or email your local AP and UPI offices and tell them you have an item to be listed in the "daybook." Keep the advisory short. Include a telephone number/email and the name of a person to contact for additional information. But do not go into great detail about your announcements or subject matter to avoid giving away the main news of the conference.
* Call/email radio and television stations to tell them again early on the morning of the conference. Talk with the assignment editor or news director. Give the pertinent data and do a brief selling job.
* Begin your conference with a brief statement and then open the floor for questions.
* Send copies of any materials to be distributed at the conference to the wire services (AP, UPI, etc.) a few hours ahead of time. Type "EMBARGO UNTIL [time of the conference]" on the material. Local wire service bureaus usually do not attend news conferences because of insufficient staff. Most radio stations and many newspapers receive their news from wire services, so be sure that the wire services receive all materials released.
* Have copies of your news release at the news conference.
* Have highly visual banners or posters on the wall behind the speaker (e.g. have a large banner that says "Congress Watch Coalition".
* When delivering your release to the press, make sure someone from your group is available at the telephone number/email on your news release.
The Needs of the Press
To use the news media effectively, you must understand and satisfy their needs.
* Your story must be action-oriented and timely. Something must happen, something that will interest the public.
* If you want television coverage, make your story visual (e.g. picketing the local district office of a Member of Congress).
* Include a positive call for action. An approach that consists of attacking without ever advancing some positive action is not popular.
* Keep in mind that news directors and reporters are often at radio stations only in the morning.
* Television people often need their information by 3 p.m. for the evening news. Learn the deadlines for papers and broadcasts, and consider these deadlines when you release your story on the activities of your local Congress Watch coalition.
Basics for Better Coverage
To maximize your coverage, remember these basics:
* A standard press list is a must. Include all the newspapers in your state. Have the name of the editor or news director for each, along with other contacts, such as particularly friendly reporters or people who might have a special interest in your story. On your press list include editorial writers.
* Do not forget small newspapers. These papers will often give you excellent coverage.
* Most news outlets (broadcast and print) use one or more wire services. Some newspapers will not use your release but will run the wire service story on your release. The opposite can also be true. Many papers dislike giving a wire service byline to a local story. The best way to cover yourself is to see that everyone, including the wire services, receives your release.
* Deliver press releases by hand to local news outlets. When the release is dropped off in person instead of relying on email, better coverage is often the result. Dropping off a release gives you the opportunity to talk with an editor or reporter and explain the importance of your story .
* Joint or coalition releases are another way to maximize coverage of the activities of the local Congress Watch coalition. Have other groups endorse the agenda being advanced by your local Congress Watch coalition either one at a time or simultaneously. Discretion is advisable here. You will not want to be associated with every organization in the state.
* Remember: everyone is busy. If you make writing a story harder for someone, they are less likely to write it. But If you make writing a story easier for someone — by providing quotes, connecting your campaign to other stories in the news, providing headlines, giving contacts for journalist’s to get quotes from, by providing data that provides context to your cause — they are more likely to write it.
Models you can use:
Adopt a Medicare for All national health insurance program
Cut the bloated, wasteful military budget
No to nuclear power, solar and wind energy first
Aggressive crackdown on corporate crime and corporate welfare
Open up the Presidential debates
Adopt a carbon pollution tax
End the U.S.-backed Israeli occupation of Palestine
End the war in Afghanistan
Repeal the Taft-Hartley anti-union law
Adopt a Wall Street securities speculation tax
Put an end to ballot access obstructionism
Work to end corporate personhood
Defend, Restore and Strengthen the Civil Justice System
Adopt the National Initiative
End mass incarceration and police brutality.
The Citizen Summons
There are many issues affecting you and your communities that need to be addressed by members of Congress. Over the years, it has become increasingly difficult to reach the legislators in Washington, DC and when they return to their districts and states, they often only attend public events and ceremonies where they do little more than shake hands and smile.
The diminishing number of in-person town meetings by members of Congress are often stacked and controlled. The locations, attendees, and even sometimes pre-screened questions fail to provide citizens an opportunity to make their case to their legislators. Politicians crave predictability; they are control freaks.
Our five hundred and thirty-five Senators and Representatives need to be reminded that they were sent to Washington, DC by voters back home who entrusted them with the well-being of their communities and country. Many of these lawmakers then become indentured to corporate campaign cash that they must constantly beg for, often compromising with what is in the best interest of their constituents. For all this corporate campaign cash, these corporations want something in return – government contracts, giveaways, tax loopholes, weak corporate law enforcement, and other privileges and immunities, especially for giant multinational corporations that have tightened their grips of crony capitalism on Washington.
So what happened to your votes and your trust in your elected representatives? They were nullified and replaced with ungrateful politicians who have forgotten that the authority lies with the people.
My proposal of a Citizens Summons can begin the process of showing your elected legislators who is truly in charge, as befits the Preamble to the Constitution – “We the People.” I am including below a draft Citizens Summons to your Senators or Representative. It covers the main derelictions of the Congress, under which you can add more examples of necessary reforms.
Your task is to start collecting signatures of citizens, members of citizen groups, labor unions, and any other associations that want a more deliberative democracy. The ultimate objective is to reduce inequalities of power.
Shifting power from the few to the many prevents the gross distortions of our Constitution and laws, our public budgets, and our commonwealth, that currently favor the burgeoning corporate state.
Members of Congress need to be shown the benefits of the workings of what our founding fathers called “the sovereignty of the people.”
The Citizens Summons to a Member of the Congress
Whereas, the Congress has tolerated the expansion of an electoral process, corrupted by money, that nullifies our votes and commercializes both congressional elections and subsequent legislation, creating a Congress that is chronically for sale;
Whereas, the Congress has repeatedly supported or opposed legislation and diverted the taxpayer dollars to favor the crassest of corporate interests to the serious detriment of the American people, their necessities, and their public facilities – such as access to safer consumer products, health care, and other basic social safety services. It has opposed raising the inflation-ravaged minimum wage and fair taxation, allowed endemic waste, fraud, and abuse by contractors, and authorized massive corporate welfare subsidies and giveaways;
Whereas, the Congress has narrowed or blocked access to justice by millions of Americans, leaving them unprotected and defenseless in many serious ways, while giving business corporations preferential treatments and allowing them full access to influence the three branches of government;
Whereas, the Congress has imposed trade treaty despotisms over our democratic institutions – the courts, legislatures, and executive departments and agencies – subordinating our domestic branches of government’s abilities to preserve and enhance labor, consumer, and environmental standards to the domination of global commerce’s “bottom line” and endorsed the usurpation of our judicial process by secret tribunals under the WTO, and other similar invasions of U.S. sovereignty;
Whereas, the access to members of Congress has increased for corporate lobbyists and decreased for ordinary citizens,
Therefore, the citizens of the [INSERT state (for Senators) or the congressional district (for Representatives)] hereby Summon you to a town meeting(s) during the August recess at a place of known public convenience. Your constituents will establish an agenda of how Congress should shift long overdue power from the few to the many, both in substantive policy and through the strengthening of government and civic institutions;
We deem this Summons to be taken with the utmost seriousness as we gain grassroots support throughout your congressional district (or state for Senators). We expect to hear from you expeditiously so that the necessary planning for our town meeting can take place. This Peoples’ Town Meeting reflects the Preamble to the Constitution that starts with “We the People” and the supremacy of the sovereignty of the people over elected representatives and corporate entities;
Be advised that this Summons calls for your attendance at a Town Meeting run by, of, and for the People. Please reserve a minimum of two hours for this serious exercise of deliberative democracy.
The names of citizens and citizen groups
Take Action: Call your member of Congress’ office or write them a letter!
Sample letter to your member of Congress:
Dear Representative/Senator [NAME],
I am one of your constituents, living in [CITY, STATE], and am writing you today to urge you to support raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour to catch up with 1968! Today minimum wage workers are making less, inflation adjusted, than they did 45 years ago in 1968. In those 45 years, the minimum wage has lost one third of its value at the same time that average CEO compensation has skyrocketed over 900 percent!
Raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour would stimulate our economy by benefiting at least 30 million workers. Studies have shown that, despite what critics say, raising the minimum wage does NOT increase unemployment. In fact, a report from the Economic Policy Institute shows that raising the minimum wage to $15 would provide raises to 114,000 DC residents and 98,000 Maryland residents. And a Chicago Federal Reserve study shows that for each dollar increase to the minimum wage, the result is $2,800 more annual spending from that minimum wage workers’ household.
Opponents of raising the minimum wage will say that raising the minimum wage will harm jobs, that it will primarily hurt small businesses, or that most minimum wage workers are teenagers working part time jobs. But studies have refuted all three of these points: several studies have shown that previous increases to the minimum wage did not increase unemployment, two-thirds of minimum wage workers are employed by large, profitable corporations, and over 75% of minimum wage workers are at least 20 years old.
On top of all of this, poll after poll has shown that at least 75% of Americans support increasing the minimum wage and indexing it to inflation. Can I count on you to stand with the majority of likely voters, to support better quality jobs for 51 million hard-working Americans, and to work to increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour?
Take Action: Write a letter to your local newspaper’s editor.
It is very important that we raise the profile of the importance of raising the minimum wage in the media. One of the best places to do this is on your local newspapers letter to the editor page. The letters to the editor page is one of the most widely read pages by members of Congress – it is how they keep an eye on what their constituents are thinking. So make sure that you write a letter to the editor!
Here is a sample of a letter to the editor that you might write (it should generally be between 150-250 words):
When it comes to the minimum wage, it is time to catch up with 1968; 30 million hard-working minimum wage workers are making less today than they did 45 years ago. Had the federal minimum wage kept pace with inflation since 1968, it would be $10.56 instead of today’s $7.25 per hour.
In those 45 years, the minimum wage has lost one third of its value; in the same time, average CEO compensation has skyrocketed over 900 percent! Something is wrong when we can live in a world where that is considered acceptable.
Critics say that raising the minimum wage would increase unemployment, harm small businesses, and that most minimum wage workers are just part-time teenage workers. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth! Studies have shown that previous increases to the minimum wage have not increased unemployment, two-thirds of minimum wage workers are employed by large, profitable corporations, and over 75% of minimum wage workers are at least 20 years old.
A report from the Economic Policy Institute shows that raising the minimum wage to at least $10.50 could add at least $60 billion in consumer spending to the economy. And a Chicago Federal Reserve study shows that for each dollar increase to the minimum wage, the result is $2,800 more annual spending from that minimum wage workers’ household.
Poll after poll has shown that 75% of Americans support increasing the minimum wage and indexing it to inflation. Public support. Better jobs. Economic stimulus. What are we waiting for?
* The following material is from the Indivisible website.
Our use of the Indivisible materials does not mean that Indivisible endorses our agenda or Congress Watch Local efforts, nor does it mean that we endorse Indivisible’s actions or agenda.
1. A local strategy targeting individual Members of Congress (MoCs).
2. A defensive approach purely focused on stopping Congress and the Executive Branch from implementing an agenda built on corruption and disregard for the rule of law.
How your MoC thinks — reelection, reelection, reelection — and how to use that to save democracy. MoCs want their constituents to think well of them, and they want good, local press. They hate surprises, wasted time, and most of all, bad press that makes them look weak, unlikable, and vulnerable. You will use these interests to make them listen and act.
Identify or organize your local group. Is there an existing local group or network you can join? Or do you need to start your own? We suggest steps to help mobilize your fellow constituents locally and start organizing for action.
Four local advocacy tactics that actually work. Most of you have three MoCs — two Senators and one Representative. Whether you like it or not, they are your voices in Washington. Your job is to make sure they are, in fact, speaking for you. We’ve identified four key opportunity areas that just a handful of local constituents can use to great effect. Always record encounters on video, prepare questions ahead of time, coordinate with your group, and report back to local media:
1. Town halls. MoCs regularly hold public in-district events to show that they are listening to constituents. Make them listen to you, and report out when they don’t.
2. Other local public events. MoCs love cutting ribbons and kissing babies back home. Don’t let them get photo-ops without questions about racism, authoritarianism, and corruption.
3. District office visits. Every MoC has one or several district offices.
Go there. Demand a meeting with the MoC. Report to the world if they refuse to listen.
4. Coordinated calls. Calls are a light lift, but they can have an impact. Organize your local group to barrage your MoCs at an opportune moment about and on a specific issue.
These tactics are all very useful:
»Showing up to the MoC’s town hall meetings and demanding answers
»Showing up to the MoC’s office and demanding a meeting
»Coordinating blanket calling of congressional offices at key moments
This chapter explains how congressional offices and the people within them work, and what that means for your advocacy strategy.
IT’S ALL ABOUT REELECTION, REELECTION, REELECTION
To influence your own Member of Congress (MoC), you have to understand one thing: every House member runs for office every two years and every Senator runs for election every six years. Functionally speaking, MoCs are always either running for office or getting ready for their next election — a fact that shapes everything they do.
To be clear, this does not mean that your MoC is cynical and unprincipled. The vast majority of people in Congress believe in their ideals and care deeply about representing their constituents and having a positive impact. But they also know that if they want to make change, they need to stay in office.
This constant reelection pressure means that MoCs are enormously sensitive to their image in the district or state, and they will work very hard to avoid signs of public dissent or disapproval. What every MoC wants — regardless of party — is for his or her constituents to agree with the following narrative:
“My MoC cares about me, shares my values, and is working hard for me.”
— What every MoC wants their constituents to think
WHAT DOES A MOC’S OFFICE DO, AND WHY?
A MoC’s office is composed of roughly 15-25 staff for House offices and 60-70 for Senate offices, spread across a D.C. office and one or several district offices. MoC offices perform the following functions:
» Provide constituent services. Staff connect with both individual constituents and local organizations, serving as a link to and an advocate within the federal government on issues such as visas, grant applications, and public benefits.
» Communicate with constituents directly. Staff take calls, track constituent messages, and write letters to stay in touch with constituents’ priorities, follow up on specific policy issues that constituents have expressed concern about, and reinforce the message that they are listening.
» Meet with constituents. MoCs and staff meet with constituents to learn about local priorities and build connections.
» Seek and create positive press. Staff try to shape press coverage and public information to create a favorable image for the MoC.
» Host and attend events in district. Representatives host and attend events in the district to connect with constituents, understand their priorities, and get good local press.
» Actual legislating. MoCs and staff decide their policy positions, develop and sponsor bills, and take votes based on a combination of their own beliefs, pressure from leadership/lobbyists, and pressure from their constituents.
WHAT YOUR MOC CARES ABOUT
When it comes to constituent interactions, MoCs care about things that make them look good, responsive, and hardworking to the people of their district. In practice, that means that they care about some things very much, and other things very little.
HOW TO FORM A GROUP
If you do want to form a group, here are our recommendations on how to go about it:
1. Decide you’re going to start a local group dedicated to making your MoCs aware of their constituents’ opposition to Congressional or Executive branch agenda items. This might be a subgroup of an existing activist group, or it might be a new effort — it really depends on your circumstances. Start where people are: if you’re in a group with a lot of people who want to do this kind of thing, then start there; if you’re not, you’ll need to find them somewhere else. The most important thing is that this is a LOCAL group. Your band of heroes is focused on applying local pressure, which means you all need to be local.
2. Identify a few additional co-founders who are interested in participating and recruiting others. Ideally, these are people who have different social networks from you so that you can maximize your reach. Make an effort to ensure that leadership of the group reflects the diversity of opposition to Congressional or Executive branch agenda items.
3. Email your contacts and post a message on your Facebook page, on any local Facebook groups that you’re a member of, and/or other social media channels you use regularly. Say that you’re starting a group for constituents of Congresswoman Sara, dedicated to stopping Congressional or Executive branch agenda items, and ask people to email you to sign up.
4. Invite everyone who has expressed interest to an in-person kickoff meeting. Use this meeting to agree on a name, principles for your group, roles for leadership, a way of communicating, and a strategy for your MoC. Rule of thumb: 50% of the people who have said they are definitely coming will show up to your meeting. Aim high! Get people to commit to come — they’ll want to because saving democracy is fun.
» Manage the meeting: Keep people focused on the ultimate core strategy: applying pressure to your MoC to stop Congressional or Executive branch agenda items. Other attendees may have other ideas — or may be coming to share their concerns about Congressional or Executive branch agenda items. — and it’s important to affirm their concerns and feelings. But it’s also important to redirect that energy and make sure that the conversation stays focused on developing a group and a plan of action dedicated to this strategy.
» Decide on a name: Good names include the geographic area of your group, so that it’s clear that you’re rooted in the community — e.g., “Springfield Indivisible Against Hate.” You are 100% welcome to pick up and run with the Indivisible name if you want, but we won’t be hurt if you don’t.
» Agree on principles: This is your chance to say what your group stands for. We recommend two guiding principles:
» Many Congressional or Executive branch agenda items agenda will take America backwards, and they must be opposed.
» To work together to achieve this goal, we must model the values of inclusion, tolerance, and fairness.
» Volunteer for roles: Figure out how to divide roles and responsibilities among your group. This can look very different depending on who’s in the room, but at a minimum, you probably want 1-2 people in charge of overall group coordination, a designated media/social media contact, and 1-2 people in charge of tracking the congressional office’s schedule and events. In addition to these administrative roles, ask attendees how they want to contribute to advocacy efforts: attend events, record events, ask questions, make calls, host meetings, engage on social media, write op-eds for local papers, etc.
» Adopt means of communication: You need a way of reaching everyone in your group in order to coordinate actions. This can be a Facebook group, a Google group, a Slack team — whatever people are most comfortable with. It may be wise to consider secure or encrypted platforms such as Signal and WhatsApp.
5. Expand! Enlist your members to recruit across their networks. Ask every member to send out the same outreach emails/posts that you did.
» Recruit people for your email list — 100 or 200 isn’t unreasonable.
» We strongly recommend making a conscious effort to diversify your group and particularly to center around and defer to communities of people who are most directly affected by the Congressional or Executive branch agenda items. This could include both reaching out through your own networks and forming relationships with community groups that are already working on protecting the rights of marginalized groups.
This chapter describes the nuts and bolts of implementing four advocacy tactics to put pressure on your three Members of Congress (MoCs) — your Representative and two Senators. Before we get there though, there are a few things all local groups should do:
Begin with these five steps to gather intel. Before anything else, take the following five steps to arm yourself with information necessary for all future advocacy activities.
1. Find your three MoCs, their official websites, and their office contact info at www.callmycongress.com.
2. Sign up on your MoCs’ websites to receive regular email updates, invites to local events, and propaganda to understand what they’re saying. Every MoC has an e-newsletter.
3. Find out where your MoCs stand on the issues of the day — appointment of white supremacists, tax cuts for the rich, etc. Review their voting history at VoteSmart.org. Research their biggest campaign contributors at OpenSecrets.org.
4. Set up a Google News Alert (http://www.google.com/alerts) — for example for “Rep. Bob Smith” — to receive an email whenever your MoCs are in the news.
5. Research on Google News (https://news.google.com/news) what local reporters have written about your MoCs. Find and follow those reporters on Twitter, and build relationships. Before you attend or plan an event, reach out and explain why your group is protesting, and provide them with background materials and a quote. Journalists on deadline — even those who might not agree with you — appreciate when you provide
TOWN HALLS/LISTENING SESSIONS
MoCs regularly hold local “town Halls” or public listening sessions throughout their districts or state. Activists often use these events to great effect — both to directly pressure their MoCs and to attract media to their cause.
1. Find out when your MoC’s next public town hall event is. Sometimes these are announced well in advance, and sometimes, although they are technically "public," only select constituents are notified about them shortly before the event. If you can’t find announcements online, call your MoC directly to find out. When you call, be friendly and say to the staffer, “Hi, I’m a constituent, and I’d like to know when his/her next town hall forum will be.” If they don’t know, ask to be added to the email list so that you get notified when they do.
2. Send out a notice of the town hall to your group, and get commitments from members to attend. Distribute to all of them whatever information you have on your MoC’s voting record, as well as the prepared questions.
3. Prepare several questions ahead of time for your group to ask. Your questions should be sharp and fact-based, ideally including information on the MoC’s record, votes they’ve taken, or statements they’ve made. Thematically, questions should focus on a limited number of issues to maximize impact. Prepare 5-10 of these questions and hand them out to your group ahead of the meeting. Example question:
“I and many district families in Springfield rely on Medicare. I don’t think we should be rationing health care for seniors, and the plan to privatize Medicare will create serious financial hardship for seniors who can’t afford it. You haven’t gone on the record opposing this. Will you commit here and now to vote no on Bill X to cut Medicare?”
AT THE TOWN HALL
1. Get there early, meet up, and get organized. Meet outside or in the parking lot for a quick huddle before the event. Distribute the handout of questions, and encourage members to ask the questions on the sheet or something similar.
2. Get seated and spread out. Head into the venue a bit early to grab seats at the front half of the room, but do not all sit together. Sit by yourself or in groups of two, and spread out throughout the room. This will help reinforce the impression of broad consensus.
3. Make your voices heard by asking good questions. When the MoC opens the floor for questions, everyone in the group should put their hands up and keep them there. Look friendly or neutral so that staffers will call on you. When you’re asking a question, remember the following guidelines:
» Stick with the prepared list of questions. Don’t be afraid to read it straight from the printout if you need to.
» Be polite but persistent, and demand real answers. MoCs are very good at deflecting or dodging questions they don’t want to answer. If the MoC dodges, ask a follow-up question. If they aren’t giving you real answers, then call them out for it. Other group members around the room should amplify by either booing the MoC or applauding you.
» Don’t give up the mic until you’re satisfied with the answer. If you’ve asked a hostile question, a staffer will often try to limit your ability to follow up by taking the microphone back immediately after you finish speaking. They can’t do that if you keep a firm hold on the mic. No staffer in their right mind wants to look like they’re physically intimidating a constituent, so they will back off. If they object, then say politely but loudly: “I’m not finished. The MoC is dodging my question. Why are you trying to stop me from following up?”
» Keep the pressure on. After one member of the group finishes, everyone should raise their hands again. The next member of the group to be called on should move down the list of questions and ask the next one.
4. Support the group and reinforce the message. After one member of your group asks a question, everyone should applaud to show that the feeling is shared throughout the audience. Whenever someone from your group gets the mic, they should note that they’re building on the previous questions — amplifying the fact that you’re part of a broad group.
5. Record everything! Assign someone in the group to use their smart phone or video camera to record other advocates asking questions and the MoC’s response. While written transcripts are nice, unfavorable exchanges caught on video can be devastating for MoCs. These clips can be shared through social media and picked up by local and national media. Please familiarize yourself with your state and local laws that govern recording, along with any applicable Senate or House rules, prior to recording. These laws and rules vary substantially from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
AFTER THE TOWN HALL
1. Reach out to media, during and after the town hall. If there’s media at the town hall, the people who asked questions should approach them afterward and offer to speak about their concerns. When the event is over, you should engage local reporters on Twitter or by email and offer to provide an in-person account of what happened, as well as the video footage you collected. Example Twitter outreach:
[email protected]r I was at Rep. Smith’s town hall in Springfield today. Large group asked about Medicare privatization. I have video & happy to chat.
Note: It’s important to make this a public tweet by including the period before the journalist’s Twitter handle. Making this public will make the journalist more likely to respond to ensure they get the intel first.
Ensure that the members of your group who are directly affected by specific threats are the ones whose voices are elevated when you reach out to media.
2. Share everything. Post pictures, video, your own thoughts about the event, etc., to social media afterward. Tag the MoC’s office and encourage others to share widely.
OTHER LOCAL PUBLIC EVENTS
In addition to town halls, MoCs regularly attend public events for other purposes — parades, infrastructure groundbreakings, etc. Like town halls, these are opportunities to get face time with the MoCs and make sure they’re hearing about your concerns, while simultaneously changing the news story that gets written.
Similar to town halls, but with some tweaks. To take advantage of this opportunity, you can follow most of the guidelines above for town halls (filming, etc.). However, because these events are not designed for constituent input, you will need to think creatively about how to make sure your presence and message come through loud and clear.
Tactics for these events may be similar to more traditional protests, where you’re trying to shift attention from the scheduled event to your own message.
1. Optimize visibility. Unlike in town halls, you want your presence as a group to be recognizable and attention-getting at this event. It may make sense to stick together as a group, wear relatively similar clothing / message shirts, and carry signs in order to be sure that your presence is noticeable.
2. Be prepared to interrupt and insist on your right to be heard. Since you won’t get the mic at an event like this, you have to attract attention to yourself and your message. Agree beforehand with your group on a simple message focused on a current or upcoming issue. Coordinate with each other to chant this message during any public remarks that your MoC makes. This can be difficult and a bit uncomfortable. But it sends a powerful message to your MoC that they won’t be able to get press for other events until they address your concerns.
3. Identify, and try to speak with, reporters on the scene. Be polite and friendly, and stick to your message. For example, “We’re here to remind Congresswoman Sara that her constituents are opposed to Medicare cuts.” You may want to research in advance which local reporters cover MoCs or relevant beats, so that you know who to be look for.
4. Hold organizational hosts accountable. Often these events will be hosted by local businesses or nonpartisan organizations — groups that don’t want controversy or to alienate the community. Reach out to them directly to express your concern that they are giving a platform to Congressional or Executive branch agenda items. If they persist, use social media to express your disappointment.
DISTRICT OFFICE VISITS
Every MoC has at least one district office, and many MoCs have several spread through their district or state. These are public offices, open for anybody to visit — you don’t need an appointment. You can take advantage of this to stage an impromptu town hall meeting by showing up with a small group. It is much harder for district or DC staff to turn away a group than a single constituent, even without an appointment.
1. Find out where your MoCs’ local offices are. The official webpage for your MoC will list the address of every local office. You can find those webpages easily through a simple Google search. In most cases, the URL for a House member will be www.[lastname].house.gov, and the URL for Senate offices is www.[lastname].senate.gov.
2. Plan a trip when the MoC is there. Most MoC district offices are open only during regular business hours, 9am-5pm. While MoCs spend a fair amount of time in Washington, they are often “in district” on Mondays and Fridays, and there are weeks designated for MoCs to work in district. The MoC is most likely to be at the “main” office — the office in the largest city in the district, and where the MoC’s district director works. Ideally, plan a time when you and several other people can show up together.
3. Prepare several questions ahead of time. As with the town halls, you should prepare a list of questions ahead of time.
4. Politely, but firmly, ask to meet with the MoC directly. Staff will ask you to leave or at best “offer to take down your concerns.” Don’t settle for that. You want to speak with the MoC directly. If they are not in, ask when they will next be in. If the staffer doesn’t know, tell them you will wait until they find out. Sit politely in the lobby. Note, on any given weekend, the MoC may or may not actually come to that district office.
5. Note that office sit-ins can backfire, so be very thoughtful about the optics of your visit. This tactic works best when you are protesting an issue that directly affects you and/or members of your group (e.g., seniors and caregivers on Medicare cuts, or Muslims and allies protesting a Muslim registry). Being polite and respectful throughout is critical.
6. Meet with the staffer. Even if you are able to get a one-off meeting with the MoC, you are most often going to be meeting with their staff. In district, the best person to meet with is the district director, or the head of the local district office you’re visiting. There are real advantages to building a relationship with these staff. In some cases, they may be more open to progressive ideas than the MoC, and having a good meeting with/building a relationship with a supportive staff member can be a good way to move your issue up the chain of command. Follow these steps for a good staff meeting:
» Have a specific “ask” — e.g., vote against X, cosponsor Y, publicly state Z, etc.
» Leave staff with a brief write-up of your issue, with your ask clearly stated.
» Share a personal story of how you or someone in your group is personally impacted by the specific issue (health care, immigration, Medicare, etc.).
» Be polite — yelling at the underpaid, overworked staffer won’t help your cause.
» Be persistent — get their business card and call/email them regularly; ask if the MoC has taken action on the issue.
7. Advertise what you’re doing. Communicate on social media, and tell the local reporters you follow what is happening. Take and send pictures and videos with your group: “At Congresswoman Sara’s office with 10 other constituents to talk to her about privatizing Medicare. She refuses to meet with us and staff won’t tell us when she will come out. We’re waiting.”
Mass office calling is a light lift, but it can actually have an impact. Activists regularly flooded congressional offices with calls at opportune moments, and MoCs noticed.
1. Find the phone numbers for your MoCs. You can find your local MoCs and their office phone numbers at www.callmycongress.com.
2. Prepare a single question per call. For in-person events, you want to prepare a host of questions, but for calls, keep it simple. You and your group should all agree to call in on one specific issue that day. The question should be about a live issue — e.g., a vote that is coming up, a chance to take a stand, or some other time-sensitive opportunity. The next day or week, pick another issue, and call again on that.
3. Find out who you’re talking to. In general, the staffer who answers the phone will be an intern, a staff assistant, or some other very junior staffer in the MoC’s office. But you want to talk to the legislative staffer who covers the issue you’re calling about. There are two ways to do this:
» Ask to speak to the staffer who handles the issue (immigration, health care, etc.). Junior staff are usually directed to not tell you who this is, and instead just take down your comment.
» On a different day, call and ask whoever answers the phone, “Hi, can you confirm the name of the staffer who covers [immigration/health care/etc.]?” Staff will generally tell you the name. Say “Thanks!” and hang up. Ask for the staffer by name when you call back next time.
4. If you’re directed to voicemail, follow up with email. Then follow up again. Getting more-senior legislative staff on the phone is tough. The junior staffer will probably just tell you “I checked, and she’s not at her desk right now, but would you like to leave a voicemail?” Go ahead and leave a voicemail, but don’t expect a call back. Instead, after you leave that voicemail, follow up with an email to the staffer. If they still don’t respond, follow up again. If they still don’t respond, let the world know that the MoC’s office is dodging you.
Congressional email addresses are standardized, so even if the MoC’s office won't give you an email address, you can probably guess it if you have the staffer’s first and last name.
5. Keep a record of the conversation. Take detailed notes on everything the staffer tells you. Direct quotes are great, and anything they tell you is public information that can be shared widely. Compare notes with the rest of your group, and identify any conflicts in what they’re telling constituents.
6. Report back to media and your group. Report back to both your media contacts and your group what the staffer said when you called.
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