Concentrating the mind and Passing the Damned Bill

As Dr. Johnson said, the prospect of imminent catastrophe can concentrate the mind wonderfully.

Despite an initial tendency in Blue Blogistan to debate whether the recent reverses should be blamed on (1) progressives (2) centrists or (3) Barack Obama, a healthy consensus seems to be developing that we should (1) blame the Republicans and (2) do something about it, namely demand that our legislators Pass the Damned Bill.   That would mean having the House pass the Senate bill under assurances that various points of dispute will be resolved satisfactorily to the House under the budget reconciliation process.

Today I called the Washington office of Sen. Diane Feinstein.  (I’m reliably told that, for those without the time to make a personal visit either to Washington or to the local office of a legislator, faxes are best, calls second-best, and emails nowhere.  Snailmail is effective – more effective if handwritten – but now very slow due to screening.  There’s a logic to this:  the more effort a communication takes, the more impressive it is.)

The polite young man who answered the phone said that he could take a comment about a legislative matter, listened politely to about three polite sentences of Pass the Damned Bill and an expression of displeasure about DiFi’s “slow down” comment, assured me that the Senator had voted for the bill and was eager to see it pass – and then gave me the first ray of sunshine I’ve seen since the catastrophe in Massachusetts.  He said that they’d been getting a lot of Pass the Damned Bill phone calls and wanted to know whether my call was part of an organized effort.

I told him that it wasn’t, since I don’t know anything less organized than Blue Blogistan.  On the other hand, if you want to call 202-224-3841 (or fax 202 -228-3954), and honesty compelled you to say that your call had been stirred up by the RBC, that would be fine with me.  (It’s not an expensive undertaking:  total elapsed time was, I’d guess, 45 seconds listening to elevator music and a minute actually talking.)

Footnote One little point that surprised me:  the staffer asked for my zip code, but no other identifying information.  I would have thought they’d want to capture callers’ names, addresses, phone numbers, and emails, but apparently they don’t think it worth the effort.  Or maybe since I didn’t identify myself by name up front the policy is not to ask out of respect for privacy.  If I had it to do again, I’d probably introduce myself at the beginning of the conversation.

Update   A reader contributes his own experience:

I used to have that job (Feinstein staff assistant in DC) and thought I might provide a few tidbits.  The zip code policy has been there since before I started (2002).  I never really knew the full reason for it, but we always assumed it was primarily because it’s an easy screen to see if someone is actually from California or not.  It is also helpful for the staffers because some people get jittery when you ask them for identifying information on the phone.

The staffers write the numbers down on a call sheet they have that contains lists of the top 5 to 10 issues of the day.  Generally, comments follow the news cycle and/or Move-On’s latest alert.  The zips never really get compiled (when I was there) for any data beyond the total number of calls unless there is a specific question from the Senator or a legislative staffer about who is calling on the specific issue (which is rare).  The total numbers are tallied up and included in a weekly report that goes to the senator.  You lose all the nuance in your call that way because the number gets boiled down to “favor” or “oppose” pretty quickly.  From time to time, the Senator will ask the staffers to give a general statement regarding the tone of the calls, but this is again rare.

I’ll mention a final point that I always thought was interesting.  The “alerts” sent out by Move-On or other interest groups tend to generate a lot of phone and email traffic for a couple of days.  This could jam up the phone lines for one or two days with 90% of people calling to read the exact same script from their alert email.  Some wanted to embellish while others had no idea what was going on if you asked them anything that deviated from the script.  When these massive alerts happened, everything essentially gets lost in the noise.  The staffers may ask for a zip code, but they don’t even write it down.  You just tally the calls coming in in groups of ten and five.  At that point, the difference between 400 calls and 2000 calls seems to lose its meaning.  In contrast, I was always more interested in the concerned citizens calling up to discuss the relevant issue of the day (such as the call you made).  However, the numbers of individual callers are dwarfed by any interest group alert that is sent out, and it is difficult to differentiate the two types of callers.  The same logic applies to faxes.  Some people send in the exact same text of a script they printed up, while other take the time to write a real letter.  The real letter may actually get through to a staffer who is curious about the issue, but the total numbers are again drowned out by the noise of Move-On.  So you may have a ton of calls on an issue, but if the NRA sent out an alert that day, you won’t have any idea whether the count is anything close to an accurate sample – or even an inkling –  of “public opinion.”

That was my perspective.  I can’t speak as to how the higher ups looked at the situation, but from ground floor the calls and emails were grains of sand.  They add up, but you can’t tell them apart or know where they came from.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

7 thoughts on “Concentrating the mind and Passing the Damned Bill”

  1. When I called my Rep I gave my address and name. Although we have some split district zipcodes so they need the detail. I actually probably could do a personal visit but I don't really know protocal there. I hadn't realized that faxes were better than calls, I might do that in the future. Is there a good handbook for this stuff?

  2. It's actually a great idea to try and visit. Call and find out when your rep is in the district and try and set up an appointment. At the very least get a written document together and drop it off their with a staffer. Personal does work and they're usually open to visits. Really! I have only Republicans in my area and although I wouldn't say they're 'happy' to see me, I can get time with Rep. Ralph Hall.

  3. Hi Mark:

    Just a quick drive by. You probably know everything I'm about to say, but here goes. I always tell my folks to give their name, address and to ask for some kind of official follow-up – maybe a letter or something to explain how they are doing. I also tell them to be very specific about exactly what they want – e.g. Vote for S.XXX or whatever. The pass the damn bill message would be particularly good for your House Member. I don't know exactly where you live in your area, but I assume Barbara Lee is your Rep?? None of the folks in your area are a particular problem on this specific issue, but it can't hurt to bug them for a meeting when they are next in town. The real trick is not only to engage or make a single call, but to become someone who they respond to. It's really interesting that they asked if you were part of a campaign. To the extent that you are, they can chalk it up to outside organizations that they don't necessarily have to respond to. However, if you are an influential person in their district it's always good that you can say so as well. E.g. it's relevant information that you run a blog, that you know X number of people in the District and that it's crazy for them not to pass meaningful health care reform. I urge you to get reality based community members in your district together and go meet with your Senators and your Rep (since you're in an area that's got a number of Rep.s it wouldn't hurt for a bunch of constituents to ask for meetings with all the various rep.s in your area). If you can pull it together for other Members in your area that wouldn't hurt, but only if you can bring real constituents with you. Members are generally pretty responsive to constituents. That goes for Pelosi too. Anyway, thanks for doing this and keep gnawing at them. I'm completely embarrassed by the Dem political malpractice and they should be too. Kennedy is rolling in his grave.

    Cheers, Bill

  4. The thing that strikes me is the absurdity of the Senate apportionment system. The compromise made in the Constitution was done so because it was necessary for the participation of small states. Certainly there was an expectation that the country would grow, but the difference is pretty staggering.

    Sen. Feinstein represents roughly 15 times as many people as were in the entire United States at the country's founding. With today's instant communications, it is no wonder constituent's voices become grains of sand.

Comments are closed.