An online journal of politics, policy, and society with a special focus on Maryland -- Contact: on_background at yahoo.com.

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Open Government

David Keene illustrates the difficulty constituents have in reaching their Members of Congress. Remember as you read this that we're not talking about well-connected lobbyists, wealthy donors, or powerful corporations. We're also not talking about how hard it is to convince someone, just to get the elusive "access" that is the coin of the realm in DC. If you really care about an issue and want to make a difference, he asks, what can you do?

You might send an e-mail message, but congressional management experts have been putting software in place to screen out much of what arrives that way so you don’t really know if yours will get through. Many offices, like that of Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), will simply bounce your message back with the warning that “due to the high volume of e-mail traffic our office receives, we no longer accept incoming e-mail.” Nice.

So you call and get a very pleasant receptionist who assures you that she wants to help but that the issue you are concerned about is one being handled by a legislative staffer currently unavailable, in a meeting or out of the office. She puts you through to the staffer’s voice mail. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to leave a message, but in many instances, a mechanical voice will inform you that the staffer’s voice mailbox is full and that you ought to try again some time.

You can, of course, keep calling, but after the third or fourth call you will probably be dismissed as a crank and future calls will get you nowhere.

You could fax your letter, but the fax numbers likely to get your message to the staffer or staffers whom you need to contact are usually unavailable to outsiders and much of what comes in on the general number is, in all too many offices, treated like spam and trashed.

So, let’s assume that you are in Washington. You can hop in a cab and head for the Hill. But when you get there you will discover, again, that the person you need to see is busy and that waiting won’t help. You may have prepared for this eventuality by bringing a copy of the letter you hoped you could get through via the mails, but security measures prohibit your dropping it off.

Does this sound like a healthy democracy, by, for, and of the people?