For all the legislation, regulation, debate, and rhetoric that comes out of Congress, the average Congressional office devotes most of its resources to a far less glamorous, and often far less visible, task: dealing with the constituent. From sorting and responding to countless pieces of constituent mail (be they physical or electronic), answering constituent calls, or dealing with casework issues, a large portion of a Congressman's staff is devoted to working with constituents. While this workforce varies in skill and number depending on the size of the Congressman's constituency, the general trend has been consistent in every Congressional office I have visited.
In my Senator's office, for example, we have two receptionists (both of whom spend much of their day on the phone with constituents), a mail scanner, and a team of Legislative Correspondents (LCs), whose responsibilities include responding to mail and meeting with constituent interest groups. We also have, of course, 6 or 7 interns, and much of what we do is tied in to interfacing with the constituent. Oh, and I forgot to mention the many offices we maintain throughout the state, all of which are tasked primarily with casework or other constituent issues.
In just a few weeks of working in my Senator's office, I have gathered that, despite the best intentions of the Senator and his staff, the constituent is, in practice, a barrier to productivity. More often than not, the job of an intern on the phones is to shield our busy and thinly-spread staff from angry and confused residents. If we're not on the phones, then we're likely sorting mail, attempting to keep our office running smoothly under the weight of thousands of letters every week. I do not say this as a criticism of the Senator's office. Such organization is both common and necessary. Indeed, the office I work in ascribes a particularly high priority to working with constituents.
What is the value of all this work? Is the Senator likely to be swayed by the fact that an interest group arranged for several hundred of their members to call about one particular issue on one particular afternoon? Is that really what democracy is all about? And even if it did sway his opinion, what is there to be said of the leadership qualities of a man whose principles and opinion can be altered by the number of marks on a tally sheet? Whether it's the staffers in the Senator's office or a group discussion much like our classes, we as a society have created a conception of the ideal citizen - someone whose opinion is informed, yet comes from within, someone who thinks deeply about political issues and may even have original thought to contribute. The best interest of that constituent is the basis of so many political arguments, from members of a government class to members of Congress. There are thousands of optimistic young students across America that devote themselves to public service in the name of that constituent. It is disheartening to learn that, in fact, the pessimists and the nay-sayers were right all along. No wonder Washington is such a cynical town.
I don't know if the ideal constituent is out there anywhere, but if they are, I wish they'd start making themselves known.