Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Breaking through the legislative firewall

Anyone who has taken the time to contact members of Congress has probably found it to be a wholly unsatisfactory experience. Old-fashioned "snail mail" letters are sent for irradiation to a facility in New Jersey to kill possible anthrax spores (really) before being delivered to congressional offices, meaning that it may be many weeks before the letter is even read, and many more weeks before you get a "canned" response.

E-mail will get the message to them faster, but "canned" emails prepared by interest groups won't get as much attention as a personalized email. Even if personalized by you, though, this doesn't mean you will get a personalized response. Congress gets so many emails that you might only receive a standard reply. Don't bother writing to members of Congress outside your own district and state, since lawmakers consider such emails the moral equivalent of spam, and most will automatically filter them out.

Phone calls are better. If you are persistent and polite, you should be able to get through to your lawmaker's "legislative assistant" who will take notes on your conversation. At times when a key vote is scheduled and Congress is inundated, you may only get through to a receptionist.

But no matter how you choose to express your views, a well-run congressional office will make sure that someone at least is keeping a running total of the views expressed by constituents, especially when it is as simple as counting how many voters support or oppose a particular bill.

The best way to get your views across is to develop a relationship with your legislators. If you are known to the lawmaker and are viewed as a respected opinion-leader, your calls will be returned and your emails answered (and you may even be fortunate enough to get your member’s personal email or cell phone number). Such relationships can be created by showing up at town hall meetings (but be polite!) and/or volunteering for the lawmaker's health care advisory committee (if they don't have one, you could offer to help them form one). Constituents who contribute to a politician's campaign, either as an individual or through a Political Action Committee, will have an easier time developing the kind of relationship that ensures that your views are given particular attention.

National and state membership societies usually will get more attention than an individual constituent, and they have tools and programs to help their own members get their views across, such as ACP's key congressional contact program.

It is especially hard to get your voices heard when it involves a recurring issue, like the Medicare Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR) formula, where everything seemingly has been said so many times before. Politicians don't expect to hear anything new from constituents, and constituents get tired of sending yet another email or letter, when it seems likely that the result is more of the same.

But how about trying new ways to break through to Congress, which would combine old-fashioned story-telling, email, and the kinds of short video links popularized by YouTube?

Last month, the American College of Physicians asked its state chapter leaders (ACP governors) to record a short video message, using an inexpensive hand-held "flip" camera, which would explain in their own words the impact of the Medicare SGR cuts on their patients, practice, colleagues, and community. The videos were edited to no more than a minute or two by ACP's public affairs staff using free Microsoft Movie Maker. Each of the ACP chapter leaders then personally emailed the health staffer for their members of Congress to consider their plea on the SGR: 1) by viewing the personal video clip from the physician, which was included in the email as a URL and 2) by reviewing the "ask" (what action they want their Senators to take) which was included as an attached PDF, ACP's congressional affairs staff (lobbyists) then followed up with each Senator's legislative assistant. View the SGR videos for Nevada, Kentucky, Ohio, and California.

The videos may not be as entertaining as standard YouTube fare, but I think they make an extraordinarily heartfelt and effective case on why Congress needs to stop the Medicare SGR cuts. Realistically, I don't expect that a single video from a constituent will break the decades-long impasse on the SGR. But stories from constituents can be the most effective of all advocacy tools, and ACP's new "Video Advocacy Project" offers a simple and creative way to bridge the legislative firewall between constituents and their elected lawmakers.

Today's questions: What methods have you found to be effective in getting through to Congress? And what do you think of ACP's new "Video Advocacy Project"?


ryanjo said...

I applaud the ACP's initiative in trying new methods to get physician's concerns before the Congress. It has been a source of disappointment and frustration to me that it is so difficult to register an opinion with our elected representatives. I appreciate the insight on how the system works.

I suspect that influential donors and lobbyists have yet another route to communicate their opinions, a door that may not be open to the rest of us. This, plus the recent court decision allowing corporate contributions, factors into the public backlash and distrust of everything going on in Washington.

Harrison said...

The video messages are good.

I think that the best hope we have of connecting with our representatives and leaders in government will involve changing some aspects of the election process.

It is unhealthy to have a system where the majority doesn't rule.
What happens is that everybody can hide behind the excuse that they agree with the constituents argument but they are powerless to push it forward.

We have to let majorities rule, and then take responsibility for their actions in the electoral process.

The Democrats have a legitimate dodge for this election cycle. Much of what they hoped to do was not done because the Senate blocked it.
The Republicans under George W Bush could make the same claim. The opposition should have power but it should not have control if it is not in the majority.

It is absurd that individual Senators can hold up nominations and pieces of legislation anonymously.

It is also absurd that so many Representatives are in 'safe' districts.
I live in a district where the Representative holds views that are very much to the right and not representative of about 40% of the people living in the district. But 40% does not a challenge make.
He always wins re-election without a meaningful challenger.

I would like to see the ACP work with other large groups to encourage a change in the 'process' of legislation in Washington.

The videos are nice. But if a legislator is first and foremost a member of their party and so required to vote in certain ways because of the party affiliation -- then we will not be heard.