By Alexander C. Furnas
The now famous Indivisible guide to grassroots activism advocates mass, coordinated constituent communication with members of Congress, among other tactics. Recent research has, however, shown mixed results regarding the effectiveness of such communications. Media surrounding Congress’s failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act or protect Net Neutrality has nonetheless highlighted the tactic as an integral form of Trump-era activism and unresponsive legislators have generated headlines, and hand-wringing. Often overlooked is the fact that these campaigns impose significant costs on the institution --- indeed, that is likely part of what may make them effective. Preliminary results from the Congressional Capacity Project suggest that even legislative staff within members’ personal offices often spend time dealing with constituent communication instead of focusing on their legislative responsibilities.
Mass constituent communication is often facilitated by interest groups organizing their members or subscribers to contact their representatives. These organizations lower the cost of communication by providing call scripts, email templates, or form letters. More recently, webapps like resistbot allow people to contact their representatives by SMS or chat. As technology has lowered the cost of communicating with members of Congress, the volume of constituent communication that offices receive has grown dramatically.
In conversations about the merits of contacting members of Congress, the costs of handling this incredible volume of communication are sometimes lost. Given the fixed budgets of offices, devoting increased resources to constituent communications may come at the expense of other necessary legislative or oversight responsibilities. New data gathered by Jesse Crosson, Tim LaPira and myself suggest that members have responded to these increased demands by changing how they allocate staff. An analysis of our hand-coded individual staffer responsibilities shows that between 1994 and 2009 (the most recent year we have so far coded) the median House office spending on constituent service staff increased by 67 percent from $243,333 to $408,258 in 2017 dollars. At the same time, median spending on communications staff has increased 32 percent, from $53,944 to $71,013. Overall, the median share of total staff spending that was allocated to constituent service and communications staff grew from 33 percent in 1994 to 47 percent in 2009. In the 110th Congress, the median member employed only three full time policy staffers in their personal offices.
Results from our 2017 Congressional Capacity Survey (CCS) show that despite the large share of staff resources allocated explicitly to dealing with constituent response, constituent demands frequently encroach on the activities of staffers with other responsibilities. Legislative staffers in members’ personal offices often pick up the slack in meeting the demands of constituent service and communication. As one of our interview respondents noted, “Our [Legislative Correspondent] also does some communications work [...] Let’s say we want to give our subscribers an update on healthcare. She’s going to put together the text and push that out to our subscribers, or she’s doing our social media, which is more direct to constituent.” CCS legislative staff respondents reported taking on constituent and communication responsibilities quite frequently. Of legislative staffers in members’ personal offices, 29.6 percent report managing constituent mail turnaround a great deal, and 28.4 percent report drafting constituent response communications a great deal. As the chart below depicts, even for direct constituent casework --- an activity that falls most clearly within the responsibilities of the generally large number of constituent caseworkers on staff --- 6.9 percent of personal office legislative staffers report working on them a great deal while 28.5 report occasional work.
This is not to suggest that constituent communication or campaigns coordinated by interest groups are bad, or that people shouldn’t call Congress. However, when considering the full effect of these activities, it is important to recognize the institutional and organizational costs that massive constituent contact imposes on congressional offices. Even as legislators have increased the number of staff allocated towards dealing with constituent communications and service, staffers with legislative or oversight responsibilities continue to be pressed into constituent oriented work. To be sure, interacting with constituents is a critical component of a representatives’ duties. But these legislative staff responses to the CCS show that constituent related demands may be encroaching on their other legislative or oversight duties.