I read with interest former Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray’s recent opinion column discussing how important it is to communicate with elected officials. In it he said “traditional outreach to government leaders via a letter or phone call can … make a real difference …” and that “officials at the local, state and federal levels welcome and want that type of engagement and communication.”
This struck a cord with me as I remember that once upon a time letters and postcards were the preferred methods of communication between constituents and elected officials locally and in Washington. A stamp was less expensive than a long distant phone call and a post card was even cheaper than a stamp. Generally, you could be confident that someone, maybe not the president or your congressperson or the governor themselves, would actually read your letter. Sometimes you might even get a response and on rare occasions a personal letter signed by your elected official might arrive in your mailbox.
I recall during the bad old days of Nixon … the Watergate break-in, the “Saturday Night Massacre,” the 18 minute gap and all the rest … when we the people got fed up with all the shenanigans in Washington we sent letters to the president and to our representatives in Congress. At the height of the Watergate debacle the newspapers were filled with photos of postal trucks unloading bag after bag of mail at the door step of Congress. The evening news would show film of senators and representatives standing among piles of constituent mail crowding their offices. The volume of mail was overwhelming and before long they heard the call of voters and even the president’s party turned on him. The rest, of course is history.
My own experience suggests that the likelihood of the president seeing your letter today is slim. All correspondence is first sent to the Office of Presidential Correspondence where the Secret Service opens and inspects it. Only a few letters are passed on to the White House. Recent attempts to reach the White House by phone were unsuccessful. During December the comment line was unavailable. Callers heard a recording saying … “The comment line is currently closed.” The switchboard, however, was open but was only “receiving calls from rotary phones.” Really!
Reaching Congress is almost as difficult. Their mail is also scanned for bombs and dangerous chemicals and it may take weeks to reach their destination. So much for images of postal trucks jamming the capitol and mounds of mail accumulating in corridors and offices.
Plan on sending an email? For all intents and purposes personal emails are discouraged. Congress no longer accepts them. Best you have access to a computer because the only means of contacting senators and congresspersons is through their individual websites where one has to answer a number of questions and declare that you are not a robot by identifying a series of fragmented photos. Beware, if you are not a constituent from their district they will not accept your correspondence.
If you chose to attempt a phone call be prepared to get one of the following messages: a list of multiple issues to choose from or numbers to press re-directing you to another recording; information on how long the queue is; a statement that they are too busy to take your call; or just a dead line. Thankfully, as Tim Murray reminds us, you can still call or email local and state officials and will likely get a response.
Difficulty in redressing grievances to government authorities is not limited to individual citizens. Recently leaders of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association attempted to present boxes of 80,000 “report cards,” written by teachers and other educational professionals, to the U.S. Department of Education only to be greeted with locked doors. The group had previously requested an appointment to present their grievances to Betsy DeVos, Secretary of Education but they were denied. Though the building is generally open 24 hours a day the doors were locked. Security personnel acknowledged that they locked them only while the AFT and NEA people were there because of the “protesters.”
They say a picture is worth a thousand words … or letters … or postcards … or petitions. Images of boxes of mail filling officials’ offices make a more impressive statement than a list of emails or text messages prepared by a secretary. The 1st Amendment to the Constitution grants citizens the right to “petition the government for redress of grievances.” It shouldn’t be so difficult.
Dick Morgado lives in Mattapoisett.