The official offices of most members of Congress consist of three small rooms. Desks are piled everywhere. The senior staff has no privacy, and while the representative has an office with a door, that door is usually open to accommodate the flow of traffic and people.
In short, the accommodations are claustrophobic.
Every desk has a phone tied to the main office number. When the phones are ringing off the hook, the calls bounce from desk to desk, forcing staff not usually tasked with receptionist duty to pick up and answer.
Imagine coming into work every day with a phone on your desk that never stops ringing with person after person on the other end of the line furious at how you are doing your job. Would it make you stop and take notice?
From 2009 through the end of 2010 I was the Chief of Staff for a Democrat who sat in one of the reddest districts in the country and was a swing vote for one of the most controversial pieces of legislation to pass the Congress – Obamacare. My boss was ultimately a vote in favor of passing the Affordable Care Act (ACA), but she came close to being a no vote – entirely due to the vocal opposition drummed up by Republicans.
There is poetic irony in sharing the tactics that the GOP used to try and stop the ACA in the first place to try and prevent its repeal.
First and foremost, light up the phones. Call your member of Congress every day. Consider calling twice a day. Don’t yell. Don’t curse. Be polite but firm. Make sure you indicate that you are from the member’s district.
I’m telling you from firsthand experience that phone calls make a difference. It’s one of the few things that will physically get the attention of a legislator.
Second, attend Town Halls. Bring your friends. You want a large audience. When my boss held town halls in the summer of 2009, thousands of people showed up. It was an eye opener.
If your Representative is not holding town halls, embark on an organized campaign to get them to do so. Make plans to show up at other public events that the member is attending like business forums or community meetings and ask about the ACA. Seek out press at these events and note that you are there because the Representative refuses to hold a town hall where you can get questions answered.
Third, if and when your Representative does hold a town hall, understand how to get your questions answered. Many times members will try and control these events by asking people to write their questions down on note cards and then having a staff member read them out loud. The staff will plant their own questions in the pile, often about issues other than the one you want to talk about. If you find this happening, you need to be prepared to stand up and POLITELY interrupt. Indicate that the crowd in the room is there to hear questions answered about the ACA repeal and that it appears like the Representative is trying to dodge those questions.
Sometimes members will try host telephone town halls instead of live events. Telephone town halls are when members contract with a phone vendor to call thousands of constituents at once who are invited to participate in a town hall over the phone.
If your member is opting for telephone town halls, call the office immediately and ask for the time and date of the call and the dial in number. Don’t let them tell you they can’t give you a dial in – they absolutely can. When you get this number, consider calling and giving it to your local TV and newspaper reporters. Oftentimes the phone vendors who set up these calls screen the numbers of reporters to prevent them from getting on.
After you’ve dialed in to the town hall, wait for the moderator to give instructions on how to ask a question of the member of Congress. Usually you have to press a number and you will be connected to a person who is screening questions. The screeners are almost always congressional staff and they have been instructed to only let through friendly questions and questioners.
So be friendly and indicate that you are going to ask a question that you are sure your member will be happy to answer. And when they patch you through to ask your question, feel free to change your mind and ask the question you really want to get answered. The worst they can do is cut you off and if they do, the reporters you invited onto the call will be sure to note it in their stories.
Finally, protest – but protest where your member of Congress can see and hear you. When my boss voted on final passage of the ACA in March of 2010 there was a sizable crowd standing on the lawn of the Capitol yelling “Kill the Bill!” The chanting was so loud and went on for so long that we could hear it inside the Chamber.
More than anything keep it polite and civil. You can be firm and appeal with emotion. But don’t threaten violence. Don’t carry a gun to town hall (as many people did when my boss was holding town halls in Colorado in 2009). Don’t go to a legislator’s home. Don’t harass his or her family. Respect personal boundaries, but make it physically impossible for the legislator to ignore you in their official duties.
Democrats passed healthcare in 2010 in the face of certain political cost because it was the right thing to do. Republicans opposed it for the sake of their own political fortunes. The GOP cares a lot more about saving their jobs in DC than Democrats ever did – and that’s a tool that can be used against them.