Let’s get this out of the way up front: the shutdown is an outrage. Our legislature is behaving recklessly. People are upset, and they are right to be upset.
But it is disappointing to watch that anger channeled in destructive ways. The latest is Drunk Dial Congress, a website created by Revolution Messaging that encourages people to have a drink (or several) and call a random congressional office, presumably to yell at them.
Much like reality TV, this is sort of amusing but socially destructive.
Telling your representatives what you think is actually important. The Congressional Management Foundation has the best data on this: their surveys of Capitol Hill staff show that phone calls, emails, letters, office visits and questions at town halls are all overwhelmingly rated as having “some” or “a lot” of influence on members. (Spammy form letters and social media are less effective–though there’s reason to believe that, for the latter at least, this is changing.)
The online activist community seems strangely resistant to the idea that political action can make a difference. This is odd, particularly given its willingness to celebrate the effectiveness of the constituent communication campaign against SOPA/PIPA. Consider this account from Derek Khanna, a staffer who was working in Congress during the SOPA/PIPA fight:
[…] on +January 18, the effect of the movement was deafening. Voters crashed congressional circuit boards and websites, tweeting and facebooking at Representatives and Senators in record numbers. Most of us had never seen anything like this before, and for many it was an abrupt, sobering reminder of what democracy really is. Members’ sudden, vocal opposition of legislation that they were co-sponsoring was a watershed moment[.]
Democracy means that there is no guarantee of results, but the evidence is clear: public feedback matters. It’s important — so important that the right to petition your government is Constitutionally protected.
At the same time, Congress’s ability to effectively collect and register citizens’ feedback is in decline. This owes partly to the flood of communication that information technology has enabled. But staff competence also plays a role: budget grandstanding has produced stagnant salaries and office sizes on Capitol Hill (growing disparity between the compensation at senior and junior levels doesn’t help).
We should fund congressional offices at the level necessary for them to properly listen to their constituents. But we should also do our best to avoid wasting their time. Venting your spleen at a junior staffer may be cathartic, but it’s unlikely to get you the results you want. This is doubly true if you decide to let off steam at a delegation that doesn’t actually represent you.
At the Sunlight Foundation, we spend a lot of time working on money in politics issues. We also build tools and systems that make it easier for developers, advocates and ordinary citizens to petition their representatives (if you participated in Wikipedia’s anti-SOPA campaign, you were using our data).
We see these tasks as fundamentally complementary. Ordinary citizens’ voices matter. If we can make them louder and stronger, we can help to balance the antidemocratic influence of moneyed elites.
But this only works if the public’s voices are coherent. Ask yourself who a staffer is more likely to listen to: the polite lobbyist who shows up with a briefcase full of arguments, or the drunk guy from the internet cursing into his phone?
There’s a place for outrage. It can drive action–action to organize, to persuade neighbors, to get to the ballot box. This work is frustratingly slow and often ends in failure. But not always.
Projects like Drunk Dial Congress are unnecessary admissions of defeat. It’s depressing, it’s mistaken, and it’s not helping.
Lee is the Director of Sunlight Labs, the engineering arm of the Sunlight Foundation. The Sunlight Foundation is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that uses technology to make government more transparent and accountable.