Are some constituent communications more likely to receive high-level attention?

 Image source:  New Yorker

Image source: New Yorker

By Matthew J. Geras and Michael H. Crespin

In response to recent debates about the Affordable Care Act and tax reform, many constituents have been making their voices heard in the political process by contacting their elected officials; in fact, since the 2016 presidential election, constituents across the country have been contacting their representatives at a record rate. Voters contact their legislators to express their views on matters of public policy, to ask for assistance in interactions with the bureaucracy, and to ask their representative how she will vote on issues before Congress. In our recent research, we use archival records to study what happens to constituent mail once it reaches a congressional office.

Since contacting elected representatives is a common form of political participation, it is unsurprising that political scientists have spent a considerable amount of time analyzing the communications between constituents and members of Congress. Much of what we know about these interactions comes from experiments in which researchers contact elected officials and ask for help with a hypothetical problem or issue. This line of research has been informative and has helped researchers answer questions concerning how responsive elected representatives are to their incoming mail and what messages legislators hope to convey when they respond to constituents. For example, experimental research reveals that elected representatives are less responsive to constituent mail than are non-elected representatives, and that racial or ethnic minorities are less likely to receive a response when they contact their representatives.

Experimental research is less helpful in answering questions pertaining to how congressional offices process constituent correspondence. Such questions are important because due to limited resources, members of Congress only see a small portion of their constituencies, normally the most active groups, which can lead to unequal representation. While most individuals do not contact their member of Congress with the expectation that their member will personally respond to their requests, congressional offices have systems in place to sort incoming correspondence so that the most important mail reaches senior staff or even the member herself.

Archival research presents a unique opportunity to study who gains access to members of Congress and senior staff when they contact a congressional office. In our recent research, we use the archival communication records of a former Oklahoma member of Congress from the 1970s and find powerful individuals, those with professional titles like president of a business, were more likely to communicate with senior members of staff than are less powerful individuals. Additionally, in this office we found evidence that letters from women and families and those dealing with routine legislation were more likely to be answered by lower ranked staff. These results reveal that even in the simple process of writing an elected representative, constituents are not treated equally by congressional offices.

While our research is limited to a single congressional office from the 1970s, it is not unreasonable to believe our findings can apply to our modern political system. In comparison to the 1970s, congressional offices now interact with constituents through social media websites, such as Twitter and Facebook, and also receive requests through email and their websites. Today’s elected officials are bombarded with constituent correspondence, making it more difficult than ever for constituents to gain access to members of Congress and their senior staff.

Matthew J. Geras is a graduate fellow at the Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center and a political science graduate student at the University of Oklahoma.

Michael H. Crespin is Associate Director of the Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center and Professor of Political Science at The University of Oklahoma.