Report Shows ‘Untapped Power’ of Constituent Advocacy

Showing the local effects of legislation can better influence lawmakers

People react to Rep. Jason Chaffetz as he speaks during a town hall meeting at Brighton High School, Thursday, Feb. 9, 2017, in Cottonwood Heights, Utah. Hundreds of people lined up early for the town hall with Chaffetz on Thursday evening, many holding signs criticizing the congressman's push to repeal the newly-named Bears Ears National Monument in southern Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Citizens from across the country have jammed the Senate phone lines in recent weeks, making their voices heard on President Donald Trump’s Cabinet appointments. But a new report suggests there are more effective ways to influence legislators. 

The Congressional Management Foundation on Monday released a new report, entitled “Citizen-Centric Advocacy: The Untapped Power of Constituent Engagement,” that highlights more than a decade’s worth of its surveys that show how citizens can best influence lawmakers. According to the group’s research, citizens who show up in person and are well-prepared with facts and arguments can have a sizable impact on undecided legislators.

“Unfortunately, most Americans believe their voices don’t make a difference. This research proves that their voices do make a difference, and they can magnify their voices by using more effective advocacy techniques,” wrote the report’s authors, Bradford Fitch and Kathy Goldschmidt, both of the CMF. 

Between August 2004 and July 2016, the foundation conducted nine surveys of congressional staff and four surveys of citizen advocates, generating more than 1,200 responses.

Its findings showed that direct interactions between lawmakers and staff can have a profound impact. In 2004, 2010, and 2015, more than 90 percent of congressional staffers said that in-person constituent visits could influence a lawmaker, especially one who is undecided on an issue.

The report highlighted the effect of direct meetings between lawmakers and staffers and constituents. But recent flare-ups at town hall meetings across the country have also demonstrated the impact of constituents who show up and make their voices heard.

For instance, last week, House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz faced a packed auditorium of protesters in Utah who questioned why the Republican congressman was not investigating the president’s potential ethical violations.

Videos of town hall meetings from other parts of the country have also sprung up with constituents confronting GOP lawmakers about their plans to do away with the 2010 health care law, and what will happen if Republicans in Congress repeal sizable portions of the law.

[Sensenbrenner Admonishes Crowd to be Respectful]

The confrontations at town hall meetings can lead to tense exchanges. Over the weekend, Wisconsin Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner told a constituent who interrupted another to “wait your turn.”

Chaffetz, who left his town hall after being shouted down, later dismissed the protesters. In an interview with the Desert News, Chaffetz said they were brought in from elsewhere and were “more of a paid attempt to bully and intimidate.” Some Republican congressmen, like John J. Duncan Jr. of Tennessee and Chris Collins of New York, have written off having town hall meetings entirely.

[Chaffetz Hears Jeers and Cheers at Town Hall]

This kind of interaction over Cabinet nominations during town hall meetings is not typical, said Fitch, the president of the Congressional Management Foundation. He said congressional engagement is usually facilitated by an advocacy organization that encourages its members to contact lawmakers about a specific bill.

But Fitch said phone calls and emails are not necessarily the most effective ways of communicating with legislators — and neither is a confrontation.

“When you’re yelling, Congress isn’t listening,” he said.

To have a productive meeting with lawmakers and staff, the CMF report noted the benefits of coming prepared.

For instance, 91 percent of staffers said including information about the local impact of legislation was helpful, but only 9 percent said constituents frequently included this information during discussions.

Surveys of staffers also found that it is important for constituents to include their own reasons for supporting or opposing a piece of legislation, a specific request for the lawmaker, and a personal story relating to the legislation.

Having a specific request is key to how groups could harness the current energy that has citizens jamming the Senate phone lines and crowding constituent meetings.

“What we’ll have to see are specific proposals that members of Congress will have to make choices on and that citizens can hold legislators accountable on,” Fitch said. “That, all of our research shows, is another component of great advocacy — that there is a specific ask.”

Fitch said groups could also look to foster more sustained engagement with lawmakers

He cited a case study, noted in Monday’s report, in which the foundation partnered with Feeding America, a national food bank network, to train constituents on how to engage with lawmakers and their staff. Those people became trustworthy sources for staffers. 

“It wasn’t by yelling. It was by preparing, it was by studying. It was by learning about the member of Congress,” Fitch said. “It was calmly and politely and persistently interacting with them on a regular basis over a period of years.”

The report’s authors also encouraged advocacy groups to include citizens in their lobbying efforts. They recommended that groups develop metrics to measure their relationship-building efforts, and take time to teach citizens how to be more effective advocates.

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