Greetings District 22 and friends,
With Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years out of the way, I wanted to fulfill a little promise I made to a past constituent to explain how to communicate with elected legislators.
I just call or email them, right?
Sure, you can call or email them. However, they have several tricks to leave you 'feeling' represented. when you're not. I want to share the tricks I personally witnessed and heard about first-hand during my time at the Gold Dome, so you are actually represented instead of being taken for a ride.
First, you have to understand their goal.
Elected officials have one goal when communicating with constituents:
Get that constituent to like them.
Why? Because if you like someone, you'll vote for them again. You won't complain to your fellow voters about them. You won't raise a stink when they do something bad. You may even donate money or put up a yard sign. Politicians know that the vast majority of people vote based off of emotion (instead of voting records), so if they can get you to like them, they're in like Flynn. As sad as this is, it's a fact that politicians milk for all it's worth. It's also why they make such a big deal about things other than their voting record, since they want to take your mind off of what they actually do.
Ever notice how car magazines never speak ill of a car? They will ignore a poor engine, poor gas mileage, poor reliability, and poor exterior design and instead write an entire article on the awesome cup holders, seat stitching, or other such comparatively trivial things. Politicians want you to gloss over their bad votes, their bad bills, their poor voting record, or their lacking constituent services and instead focus on their charity work, their devotion to religion, their family, or some other window dressings. Don't fall for their cup holders.
Not me! I'm the exception! I can see through their pandering!
No, you probably can't. It has little to do with intelligence. It has more to do with an informational imbalance between you and your elected official. I've seen this with people who have been having face-to-face meetings with politicians for years even. I'll explain via example. Let's say you contact your State House Rep to share a concern.
Your constituent concern:
You're worried that you'll be arrested for ripping the tag off of a mattress, since the tag says that you cannot do so under penalty of law. You decide to contact your State House Rep (or Senator) with this pressing issue, as you can't stand how this stupid the tag looks hanging from under your comforter, but don't want to face Hard Time in a Federal Prison for doing something about it.
1. The Form Letter
So you send an email about your mattress tag concerns, and you get back a form letter. Some form letters sound pretty good, but they are still form letters. While they are fine for some things, they should never be accepted as the answer to an actual concern you have. You should *always* expect a real reply.
If you can replace your concern with any other concern and the letter makes the same sense, then it's a form letter. Example: "I appreciate your concern about mattress tags. I share that concern. I appreciate you bringing me this issue." (Notice how you can replace 'mattress tags' with 'beanie babies' and it makes the same sense.)
What you should do differently: Call them out on it! Tell them that you expect an actual reply, and that this is an important issue for you. Understand that getting a form letter about a concern you have is the same as the politician putting their hand up to your face to shush you from talking. It's dismissive, and it's done to hopefully make you go away. Many times, it does. Over the past year, I've encouraged dozens of voters to call out various State Reps and Senators who sent them a form letter.
Also know that they will write form letters for topical issues, like how many did last year with no-knock warrants. Don't fall for it.
2. The Reply
You send another email. You get another reply back. This one is different from the Form Letter. It's an actual reply! Maybe they used your name! Maybe they reiterated your position in different words! Maybe they also claimed concerns about being arrested for ripping the tag off a mattress! Maybe they agree that something should be done!
The problem with The Reply is that it's all hot air. They hope that by simply agreeing and responding with a personal tone, you will be satisfied. Sadly, most constituents are.
What you should do differently: don't settle for The Reply. Expect and specifically ask for something *concrete*. Corner them into promising action OR corner them into admitting that they will not work on your issue. I tried to do this every time such an issue came up, voluntarily. I would tell a constituent that I could not work on their issue (my reason was normally because the request was to increase the size or scope of government). They appreciated the honesty. In reality, I'm too lazy to do the below tricks, so I figured just being honest was easier.
So there are two ways of dealing with your mattress concern - your elected legislator either works on it, or ignores it. You should 100% know which one your elected official will do. Do not stop contacting them until you know. Always be firm, but polite.
Advanced Hint: if they promise to do *something*, but don't detail what that *something* is, this is merely The Reply in disguise. Other examples include "I'll talk to my colleagues" or "I'll look into it", or "Let me do some research and get back to you (without giving a solid date)". All of these are just stalling via The Reply, so you'll need to keep prodding for something *concrete*. Otherwise, the politician will have succeeded in stalling you to make you go away.
3. The Promise
The Promise is like The Reply, but there is an important added ingredient: the promise to do something *concrete* about your issue. This is where I started to depart from most other Reps, as I wouldn't promise to do something unless I 100% fully intended to do so, and always did.
Politicians hate The Promise. When in writing, it's something they can be held to, something can be used against them later, especially during an election. So they often try to offer up a little promise. Using the mattress tag example, they may make a little promise to ask Legislative Counsel about mattress tag laws and get back to you in a week with an answer. That's a pretty small promise, since a quick email, phone call, or visit lasting less than a minute fulfills this promise (but makes it seem like they are doing something). They are stalling you, hoping you will go away (but not going away mad...going away feeling like they tried).
It's kinda like promising to pick up a single Cheerio when you spill an entire pallet of Cheerios. Then, you pick it up, and promise to pick up another single Cheerio. It seems like you're being helpful, but in reality you are only offering a token gesture and wasting a lot of time doing it. Eventually, someone will give up on you cleaning up the mountain of Cheerios, and just do it themselves. Similarly, politicians hope a stream of little promises will exhaust you, so that you eventually go away as well. From the outside of the legislative process, this is hard to discern, which is why I try to educate on how our state government works.
Also, many little promises are designed to allow legislators to assign blame to someone else when they return to you with "bad news" that nothing further can be done about your issue. That is organic bovine fertilizer, and you need to call them out on it. As you watch out for the little promise, also make sure that they are not offering to do something that would give them the ability to pass blame elsewhere for your issue stalling. The buck stops with them, no excuses. House Leadership, the Governor, some union, etc...none are valid excuses to use, so be wary when your elected official simply promises to discuss your issue with any of them. Tell your elected official that you can contact others yourself. Tell them that you contacted them so they can do something *concrete*. What you expect is a big promise, like them to sponsor a bill or vote for/against something. Or to champion for/against a bill already in the works.
Heads-up: Reps and Senators have have a few tricks to get out of certain big promises, and we'll cover them after we cover one of their single favorite ways to side-step doing what you expect of them: the phone call.
4. The Phone Call
When The Promise comes up (because you cornered them into making it!), they will try to get you to switch to a phone conversation instead of email. This trick happens so often that it's basically a reflex.
Why? Well, a phone conversation accomplishes two things for the politician. One is that they can sweet-talk you on the phone. Make you feel listened to. Make you feel like they think you are important. Put an edge to their voice so they sound concerned. They hope to find something you have in common, so the conversation instead turns into the two of you agreeing on that something. Politicians do this *all* the time, and they are *very* good at it. Experts. Masters. You won't know what hit you until a day later you realize that your mattress tag is still ugly, still taunting you, but you somehow have no idea if your elected representative even made a little promise to do anything about it.
But that is only half of it. Unlike email, The Phone Call is effectively off of the record, and politicians hate being on the record. They can lie through their teeth or promise anything, little promises or big promises make you like them. Why? Because you'll have nothing to complain to the media or other voters about later, since it'll be your word against theirs (and they know you'll lose that battle). Not only that, but they will 'remember' the conversation differently when you later contact them about breaking their promise. "No, that's not what I said. You must be mistaken. I said that I would look into it. And I did. I never promised you that I would sponsor a bill!"
What you should do differently:
Insist on communicating via email, always. It's honestly quite funny to watch politicians squirm, trying to get out of replying via email, claiming all sorts of hardships that make a phone call seem so much 'better'. Do not fall for any of them. You are not telling someone you love them for the first time, you are holding an elected official accountable. Email is perfectly fine.
5. The Big Promise
This is when the rubber finally starts to hit the road. Your elected official claims to agree with your issue, and has thus made a Big Promise to sponsor legislation that would not only make it illegal for Georgia to arrest you for ripping the tag off of a mattress, but even step in to protect you from the Federal Government if they tried to. Seems to mean business!
Everything was via email. No way to weasel out of verbal, over-the-phone promises. They may have even sent copies of the bill to you ahead of time, asking for your input. They follow up in a few days to have you look online, and you can even see the bill online, so you know they sponsored it. It may even have a co-sponsor or two. You're in constituent heaven now!
Unbeknownst to you, you're about as far along with your issue as someone stuck at The Reply. Why? At this point, most constituents will feel like their elected official has done all they can do. In reality, they have done nothing. They know you don't know this.
This trick gets rid of the constituents too savvy to fall for the Form Letter, The Reply, or a Little Promise. This trick gets rid of 99% of constituents. Let me explain it to you:
How a bill is created, sponsored, and passed
To have a bill created, you literally walk up to legislative counsel and say, 'make me a bill that does XYZ'. They do all the work. They will interpret what XYZ means, look up existing laws, figure out what law needs to be written, wordsmith the law, and put it all into legalese. The lawmaker literally only has to pop their head into the office of legislative counsel and verbally ask for a bill to be created. Anyone could do it, even someone who's never read a law in their life. Now, crafted bills require actual effort on the part of the legislator, but not a throw-away bill they are only sponsoring to get a constituent off of their back (yes, that is foreshadowing).
Within only a day or two, and your legislator will have a full bill, ready to be sponsored. I was always amazed at how little effort is required (by the legislator) in drafting a simple bill, due to the professional support structure of Legislative Counsel.
To sponsor the newly-drafted bill, they have to do two simple things. The first is that they have to sign both copies of the bill. The second is that they hand both copies to the office that handles sponsored bills. The office is just a few doors down from Legislative Counsel, and the people that work there are super-friendly and helpful.
From that point, the bill goes through first and second readers automatically, is assigned a committee automatically, and...then it dies.
Yes, it dies.
There are thousands of bills sponsored during any given legislative session. But only hundreds are voted on. The rest die in committee. And your elected politician knows this. Your elected politician also knows that if nobody fights for the bill, lobbies for it, then the bill will suffer the same fate as a common housefly that gets stuck between your home window and the screen - it will be visible to everyone from both sides of the window, but it will be dead on its back, require effort to reach from either side, and be basically forgotten until it's time for spring cleaning.
This is what you are going for. Your issue is heard. A bill is created. It is sponsored. AND your elected Rep/Senator fights for it. He/she goes to the chairman of the committee and requests a hearing on the bill. At the hearing, your representative champions your bill. You can attend most of these committee meetings yourself at the Gold Dome, and your elected representative can get you the calendar to do so. That way, you can see what they do in the committee, but they should also be able to tell you how their private lobbying efforts are going.
There area few tricks they play here, too. One is that they invite you to champion the bill yourself in a committee, while they privately tell other legislators that the bill is simply a way for a constituent to blow off steam, and that it should not be taken seriously. Unfortunately, there is little you can do about this other than to remain diligent and check to see if the politician is trying to get you to like them, or if they are trying to *actually* solve your problem.
Once out of committee, the bill will go to the Rules Committee. You should expect your elected official to lobby for your mattress tag bill to be pushed through the Rules Committee, where it is placed for consideration for a floor vote. If so, then it may go for a floor vote (where all Reps/Senators vote for it). Lots of little exceptions here, like your bill could be combined into a larger bill, etc. By this point, you'll be familiar with the various issues.
But you're still not out of the woods yet. Next, it has to go over to either the House or the Senate. So your elected representative needs to find a sponsor in that body as well. Then, the whole process repeats. Finally, the bill is passed by both bodies, and can be signed by the Governor.
Yes, it's a lot of work.
The point of telling you all this is to understand why The Reply and The Promise are both meaningless. Few constituents know this, and politicians use this to avoid serving them all the time. I've personally seen groups strung along for years under The Reply and The Promise. They tend to get a lot of face-time with the elected politician, which they see as 'getting something done', but magically, nothing ever actually seems to get done.
BTW, face-time is worse than a phone call. Stick to email.
This same advice works for vote requests, too
If you want your elected official to vote for/against something, don't let them use the above tactics to get out of representing you. Also, they should be attending the committee meetings of those bills to fight for/against them. Get them to promise, in writing, that they will do so. Then follow up to make sure they do (some committee hearings are video taped, for example).
The play-by-play is what we did last year with those trying to legalize no-knock warrants in Georgia for the first time in Georgia history, and what we'll do again with whatever horrible bills they come up with this year.
Be wary the Safe Vote!
What is the Safe Vote, you ask? The Safe Vote is when your elected representative votes they way you want them to *only* when it does not matter. Let's say something like last year's gas tax bill comes up. House Leadership tells everyone that they must pass it. Feeling threatened by House Leadership, House Reps from solidly Republican districts voted for this bill against the wishes of their constituents.
Of course, at around a 1 Billion Dollar tax increase, this bill does not play well in such staunchly conservative districts. Eventually, the bill is voted on a number of times as it changes and goes between the House and the Senate. With enough votes available to pass, Reps in such conservative districts are 'allowed' to vote against it (since it will pass anyway). This is called a Safe Vote. The Safe Vote gives fake cred to Reps, to keep them from getting on the bad side of a reelection.
What you should always consider:
If you are asking about voting records, make sure your elected official voted for/against a particular issue *every single time*. Don't fall for the Safe Vote. A legislator that has voted against and for the same bill will tell you what you want to hear when you ask about their vote. This goes for procedural votes and for votes to send an issue to a research committee or a vote to send the issue up as a referendum for voters to vote on.
That is all for now.
I hope this fulfills my little promise to write about how to communicate with elected officials, and show some of the tricks they use. Let me know if there is anything else you want to learn about, and if I'm not too lazy, I'll write about it.
The legislative session starts soon. Stay tuned. There is a lot of work to do for us to keep our freedoms and keep the government off of our backs and out of our pocketbooks, and we will need your help.
GA State House Emeritus - Dist. 22
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P.S. Remember to be aware of The Form Letter, The Reply, the Little Promise, The Phone Call, the Big Promise, and the Safe Vote. Those are all tricks that our Gold Dome representatives use on a daily basis to get you to 'go away' and to con you into liking them as they don't do what you elected them to do.
P.P.S. Also remember that any politician is trying to get you to like them, because they know that 99% of people vote on emotion, not record. That is why they will lie to you, because if you like them as they tell the lie, they know that you'll probably overlook their incorrect vote. If you insulate yourself by only communicating via email and only considering *concrete* actions like votes, then you'll be ahead of the curve.
P.P.P.S. If you are wondering about mattress tags at the law, it's not illegal to remove the tag from a mattress/pillow/fabric product you own. However, it is indeed a federal law to remove the tag from a brand new fabric product for sale. The original reason for this law is quite interesting. Learn more here.