Recess is a great time for online petitions to Congress

If the congressional leadership sticks to the legislative calendars released back in November, the House will adjourn for the summer on July 15, with the Senate following suit three days later on July 18. Lawmakers won’t return to Washington until after Labor Day in early September.

Just don’t call it “recess,” members of Congress say. (That reticence is probably because it invokes images of children on a playground.) Lawmakers prefer to call it a “district work period,” during which they return home to take the political temperatures of their constituency at town-hall meetings and the like.

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Today, in the era of the internet and social media, there are more ways than ever for constituents to let lawmakers know what they think, not only when lawmakers return home for district work periods, but also when they’re in Washington.

Whether it’s one of the innumerable trade associations, nonprofit organizations and special-interest groups in Washington lobbying Congress for or against pending legislation that concerns them, or just the average citizen wanting to make his or her opinions on the issues of the day known to their elected leaders, more people today are taking to heart something that Thomas Jefferson said on the subject:

“We in America do not have government by the majority. We have government by the majority who participate.”

Participation is necessary, not because our lawmakers aren’t mind readers and won’t know what we think if we don’t tell them, but because politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum.

Indeed, that participation — and more broadly, the First Amendment’s protection of the right “to petition the government for the redress of grievances” — has taken on new dimensions with the increasing use of email and various web platforms to do so. (Jefferson would no doubt approve.)

The Congressional Management Foundation’s Partnership for a More Perfect Union, in a 2011 report, “Communicating with Congress: Perceptions of Citizen Advocacy on Capitol Hill,” said an online survey it conducted of congressional staffers found that 87 percent of respondents thought email and the internet have made it easier for constituents to become involved in public policy. It also found that 57 percent thought email and the internet have made senators and representatives more accountable to their constituents.

The survey noted that congressional offices “are overwhelmed with the significant increase in volume and the delivery methods used by advocate organizations.”

Asked what methods of advocacy were most effective in influencing a member of Congress undecided about how to vote on an issue, far and away the most staffers said it was constituent visits to the member’s Washington office (97 percent) and to the state or district office (94 percent). Questions at town-hall meetings and letters to the editor, at 87 percent and 80 percent, respectively, were said to have some or “a lot of” influence.

Those survey findings are more than five years old now, but while there’s little reason to think that those percentages would be much different today, one method of advocacy and of facilitating citizen engagement that wasn’t asked about then has since taken on a much higher profile; namely, online petitioning.

But for online petitioning to maximize its impact on public policy — and by extension, to register on any future such survey of congressional staffers, two things must happen.

First, the “Communicating with Congress” survey found that postal mail and email — with the exception of form letters — were viewed as almost equally influential to undecided members of Congress, but quality content is essential to the credibility of either form of mail and to their being taken seriously. Simply put, they must be well-written, concise and typo-free.

That’s no less true of online petitions intended for delivery to congressional offices. Other than perhaps misspelling the recipient’s name, there is no surer way to ensure the petition’s one-way trip to the circular file.

Second, at least for trade associations and advocacy groups that want to be seen as bipartisan and to secure broad support for their causes, online petitions must be — to borrow a phrase — “fair and balanced,” in a manner of speaking.

Use of, say, Change.org alone as a petitioning platform is insufficient, because its user base is known to skew left, so any petition utilizing it will likely be seen — and signed — primarily by political liberals.

That’s fine, even to be expected, if the petition is championing a liberal cause, but not if support is being sought across party and ideological lines. In that case, a petitioning platform that skews right, such as StandUnited.org, can augment that and demonstrate one’s issue(s) are broadly supported.

And for what it’s worth, congressional recesses — make that “district work periods” — are a good time to submit completed online petitions to the offices of members of the House or Senate (both in Washington and back in the state or district). That’s simply because when Congress is out of session, there are typically far fewer people and things competing for members’ time and attention, and those of their staffs.

Van Remortel is the senior project manager at Intermarkets Inc., a privately held digital-media firm.


 

The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.