The rigors of the campaign are still fresh, but for newly elected U.S. House members and senators, the hard part is beginning. Already, they’re inundated with advice on the issues they’ll be facing: the fiscal cliff, crises overseas, how to behave in a highly partisan Congress.
All of this will take time to sort out. But there’s one task I’d advise them to tackle right away, whatever their party: learning how to do constituent services right.
Many years ago, when I was still in the House, I accompanied a senator to a public meeting. A woman approached him afterward to ask for help with a Social Security problem. Irritably, my colleague told her that he didn’t have time; he had important policy issues to deal with. I was stunned. So was the woman. I have never forgotten the look of helpless chagrin on her face.
Self-interest alone would have counseled a more helpful approach. I ran into someone from my district once who told me, “I don’t agree with you most of the time, but I’m voting for you because you take good care of your constituents.” People notice. And they care. That senator who rebuffed the plea for help? He was defeated in the next election.
But there’s more to it than just currying favor with the electorate. Good constituent service, I believe, is crucial to being a good elected representative.
There’s no mystery why. The federal government is vast, complex, and confusing, and it touches far more lives than any private company. Sometimes it’s a model of efficiency, but too often it’s agonizingly slow to get off a passport or approve a disability payment. And it makes mistakes — a transposed Social Security number, a wrong address, a benefit miscalculation — and then drags its heels fixing them. Its rules and regulations can be hard to navigate. Ordinary Americans get caught up in the gears, and they need help.
As a member of Congress, you can learn a lot by paying attention. Though it’s a habit for legislators to think of policy-making and constituent service as two distinct halves of their responsibilities, that’s not always the case. The problems people are having keep you alert to what might need to be done legislatively. If there’s a huge backlog of disability cases at the Social Security Administration, for instance, or a surge of veterans having trouble getting their benefits, that ought to be a warning sign. Workers in those agencies may be struggling to remain efficient, or they may need additional staff and resources — either way, it bears investigating and, possibly, legislative action.
The challenge, of course, is that helping constituents with their problems isn’t easy. It demands a commitment of staff and time. It means being careful to avoid even a hint that a constituent’s party affiliation matters. It requires walking a fine line with the bureaucracy — which can sometimes resent congressional “meddling” — so that you’re helpful without going overboard on a constituent’s behalf. Sometimes, the people you’re helping don’t tell the whole story. The best you can do is ask for fair and prompt consideration for their pleas, without putting yourself at cross-purposes with either the law or the federal officials you work with daily.
But none of this is a reason to downplay constituent service because the need is endless. I used to set up shop in a local post office in my district, and was constantly amazed at how many people would turn out. They needed help getting their mail delivered properly, or tracking a lost Social Security check. They were having problems with the IRS, or getting enrolled for veterans benefits. They got confused by the overlapping responsibilities of different levels of government, and needed help finding the right person to call.
The point is, these problems are constant. I’ve been out of public office for over a decade, yet the other day a neighbor stopped me on the street to ask for help speeding up a visa application. Americans need a point of contact with their government. If you’re a public official — or even an ex-public official — get used to the idea that you’re it.
Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.