"Senator Boxer's office, how may I help you?" I repeated this phrase ad nauseam during my two years as a staff assistant in U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer's Los Angeles office.
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It has been over four years since I turned in my Senate staff badge, but my experience as a public servant has been front-of-mind following the election. With President-elect Donald Trump assuming office in January, those worried about his administration are looking for ways to become a more active and engaged citizens. One avenue? Reaching out to your representatives.
A congressional office near you?
When you think about Congress, you likely picture Washington, D.C.: the Capitol dome, older (mostly white, mostly male) lawmakers, stuffy chambers, the House and Senate floor, congressmen and women moving in and out of meetings and floor votes, staffers scurrying around the capitol or drafting legislation.
But there's another, often forgotten, aspect of legislative representation: district offices — congressional offices in the state or district of your representative. Their main task is not drafting bills, but rather working with constituents: Answering phone calls, responding to certain letter requests, handling casework, and being the outward face of the senator or representative to the community. (Senator Boxer, who is retiring this year, has seven offices: one in D.C. and six across California.)
"Staff assistant" is an entry-level position for recent college grads. I'd previously interned in two of Senator Boxer's offices (in San Diego and D.C.), and I assured myself that I was prepared for constituent work. From my secure front desk I could talk to the masses, hear out their policy suggestions, and do my best to solve problems. I’d master the phone, the legislative docket, and the casework forms.
Though I didn't last more than two years, before I headed to graduate school to study journalism, the staff assistant position and its place in democracy have never been more important — and crucial to utilize.
"We're on the front lines of democracy!"
I'd explain to the gaggle of interns I hired that taking constituent phone calls was a privilege: listening and logging praise and complaints from the citizens that the Senator — and by extension the staffers — serves is a vital role in the democratic process. Most importantly, the process works.
On some days, the phones were nearly silent. I'd speak to a few regular callers, who called to share details of their lives as much as their policy opinions.
However, when specific bills were being considered — for example the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) in the Senate, in 2012 — our office took a barrage of phone calls. Those calls, coupled with letters, protests, and public outcry from major websites and tech companies (which encouraged users to call their representatives), ultimately stalled SOPA and PIPA's movement. In 2012, The New York Times called the bills "indefinitely shelved."
The Los Angeles Times reported that during the in-person and online protest of the two bills, "8 million U.S. readers took Wikipedia's suggestion and looked up their congressional reps from the site."
"Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon and a key opponent of the bills, said lawmakers had collected more than 14 million names — more than 10 million of them voters — who contacted them to protest the once-obscure legislation," according to The New York Times.
Here's what to do.
Look up your federal representatives: you have three, two U.S. Senators, who represent the entire state, and a U.S. Representative, who represents your specific district. You can look them up here and here, all you need is a zip code.
Make a plan to call: Skip calling the D.C. office and call your district office. Your congressional representatives should have district office phone numbers listed on their website. Call during business hours (also listed on the website) to guarantee that you'll speak to a staffer.
Know what message you want to convey: Do you want your congress person to vote a specific way on a bill? If so, have the bill number and name ready. Do you want to voice your opinion on a non-legislative issues? Have your opinion ready. Do you have a question about where a bill is in the legislative process? Or how your representative plans to vote on a bill? Have the name and number ready for the staff member to look up. Do you need help with a specific casework issue? Make sure it's something that the federal government (and not your state or local government officials) covers and be ready to fill out a casework form.
Be patient and kind: Senate staffers may not have every answer, but they will do their best to help you. They can take hundreds of calls in one day, but they're here to serve you.
As a staff assistant, I logged each call, and the record of how many people called about every topic was reported up the chain. Days when the phones rang off the hook, every staffer pitched in, and major phone campaigns never went unnoticed.
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