Friday, January 28, 2005

Congress, Incorporated

Have you ever tried to call one of those "Customer Service" lines of a major corporation? We've all heard the caricature, the long wait on hold, the mechanical voice assuring you that "your call is very important to us - please continue to hold", and the uncaring attendant who finally answers the call, with a dice roll as to whether you'll get your problem solved. It seems to me, that's one of the big image problems of Corporations - they may care a great deal about their customers, but many give out signals that they couldn't care less. I'm getting those same signals from Congress.

For the curious, I'm starting to get back some of the auto-reply responses these guys have loaded onto their systems, and it's interesting the types I'm seeing. I will go into a deeper analysis of this when I think everyone's had a fair chance to acknowledge the receipt of the questionnaire. (note - when I refer to 'Congressmen' here, I mean both men and women, and both houses of Congress, for simplicity)

Auto-replies are form letters by definition, but some of the Congressmen have put more thought into their replies than others. Standard information is the 'I value your input' promise, the direction to the Congressman's web site, and a reminder to provide specific contact information, so the Congressman can "personally" respond. The form varies somewhat, but it provides a starting point for the Politician's arguments.

First, the question remains open as to who will actually answer the questions. It's quite valid, actually, for Congressmen to suggest a querant check out his web site, so I will also be checking out all the websites to see if the readers' questions were covered. Also, I understand the desire to attend to the constituents' need as a primary responsibility, but there are good reasons why I sent this poll out. First, while Congressmen believe they are answerable only to their district or state, if you take a look at the checks you get, you may be surprised to discover you are an employee of the Federal government, and as such are answerable to the nation as a whole. Also, since the overwhelming majority of Congressmen belong to one of the national parties, that 'national' aspect of their thinking and votes is reinforced. Also, from the response of our readers to their opinion of Congress, it sure sounds to me like the constituents do not feel that they are heard. There is not one state or district where a reader claimed to be satisfied with the attention Congress gives to voter concerns. So while this was my project, it was spurred by an intense dissatisfaction of Congress by the voters. That's a problem, I dare to say, that Congress needs to address. So, if by chance you are a Congressman or Senator, work for one or know one, you might suggest they answer the poll. Your people are watching, and there will be grades.

Anyway, back to the auto-replies. Some of them are really telling.

Richard Durbin (D-IL) has an e-mail address, but the auto-reply says it's "no longer active". The writer is directed to go through his Congressional web site, which screens out non-constituents.

Tom Allen (D-Me) states "Due to the amount of mail I receive, I regret that I am only able to respond to mail from the state of Maine". Bearing in mind the unlimited franking privilege, this is not at all reasonable, but I suspect will be a common excuse.

Tom Latham (R-Io) is a bit more courteous. He says "if you are not a resident of Iowa's Fourth Congressional District, I still appreciate reading your comments. You may also want to contact your own Member of Congress." I will be interested to see if many more Congressmen show this kind of class.

Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wi) is downright curt: "If you are not a constituent, please note that your communication has been received and recorded". Gee, if that doesn't sound like a 'File 13' promise, I don't know what it is!

Jeff Flake (R-Oh) actually reads like a real person wrote the mail, but he still mentions "I am unable to respond to individuals who do not reside in Ohio's 13th Congressional District"

French Waiter's Syndrome, that : "Zaat is not my table, monsieur"

A lot of attention has been focused on Arlen Specter (R-Pa). Arlen is very organized in his mail: "By following these simple steps, you will help me respond to your concerns in a more prompt and efficient manner."

Efficient, no doubt, but it won't be Senator Specter who responds. The "simple steps" which followed that statement, were directions to other offices and services, and what couldn't be shuffled off to someone else, was directed to the senator's staff. In no case, it appears, is anything an ordinary person says or does of concern sufficient to involve the personal attention of the Senator.

Others are downright cute - Vito Fossella (R-NY) directs his constituents to "contact my office" by telephone (apparently, there is something wrong with mail and e-mail where the Congressman is concerned), and says "If you live outside the 13th Congressional District, my office will be happy to forward you [sic] thoughts and concerns to the Member who represents you." Geez, sounds like this guy took lessons from Gotti!

So there's your first look at the auto-responses. Granted, none of these is the final answer from any of these guys, but they do set a tone.

Congress has become essentially a corporation, and not one which really feels pressured to take care of its clients and shareholders. I wonder if these suits on the Hill realize that this time, the results will be published nationwide, and won't end with just one try at contact, and will not be satisfied with the 'business as usual' attitude these responses are sending. We will be following up, me and others already warming to the call, and those grades will be there when these guys come up for their re-election campaigns.

Message to the Hill - You're answerable for a lot, folks, and the old days of a few appearances on 'Meet The Press' are gone. It's not just me, and it's not just this site, and it's not one party or one time or one complaint.

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