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How Constituent Contact Matters in the U.S. Congress

- April 29, 2013

We welcome this guest post from University of Maryland political scientists Kristina Miler.


In response to the recent question about whether contacting your representative matters, previous posts have highlighted evidence from field experiments and state-level research that suggests that contact can have an effect on legislative voting.  In my own research, I have examined how constituent contact affects the way members of the U.S. Congress view their districts and whether these perceptions then shape their activity in Congress.  I conducted face-to-face interviews with a random sample of more than 80 House members and senior staff, using a series of questions about constituency contact and embedding a quasi-experimental design to understand the role information plays in legislative perceptions of the district.  I found that contact from constituents matters, but it matters in a more pervasive and specific way than previously thought:  letters, email, and phone calls from constituents influence how legislators view their constituency, which in turn shapes their behavior on the Hill.

To put the question of contacting your legislator in context, it’s helpful to keep in mind that representation is a tough job.  Members of the U.S. House are responsible for representing more than 700,000 people on a wide range of issues.  Moreover, the district doesn’t have a single interest, but rather contains numerous subconstituencies with varied interests. When legislators on Capitol Hill look back to their districts it’s difficult to say just what the “district interest” is.  Therefore, we need to understand who legislators see when they look at their district. Or as congressional scholar Richard Fenno wrote: “In the study of representation, therefore, perception matters a lot… A constituency is, to an important degree, what the elected representative thinks it is.”

So how much of the district do members of Congress actually see? The short answer is that legislators see only a small fraction – less than one-third – of the constituents in their district who are relevant to an issue.  For instance, when thinking about healthcare reform, if legislators had a complete view of who they represent, they likely would identify the doctors, hospitals, patients, businesses, trial attorneys, and insurers in their district.  But they don’t. Legislators see at most a handful of these constituents despite the fact that they all exist in the district and are affected by any legislation on the issue.  This limited perception of who is in the district is important because legislators cannot be expected to act for constituents if they don’t see them.

Coming back to the issue of constituency contact, then, does writing or calling your member of Congress help you?  The answer is yes.  Constituents that more frequently contact their legislator are more likely to be identified by legislators as relevant to an issue, and this holds true for both personal contact (phone calls, visits) and mail contact (letters, email).  In fact, contact is the single most consistent predictor of which constituents legislators perceive in their district.  For instance, if doctors in a district call their House member about once a month to express their feelings on healthcare while hospital administrators do not contact the representative, the legislator will be three times more likely to see the interests of physicians when considering his district’s interest on health policy.  In addition, while both mail and personal contact increase the chances of being seen by legislators, personal contact is especially effective on salient issues.  If there’s an issue you care about, go ahead and pick up the phone – you’ll make more of an impact than if you send an email.

Contact puts a constituency interest on a legislator’s proverbial “radar screen,” which has important consequences for future policymaking.  This is because the constituents legislators see when they look at the district become the foundation for subsequent congressional behavior.  For instance, House members are far more likely to participate in committee hearings on behalf of constituents they see in their district as compared to other relevant constituents. Additionally, when legislators see a greater range of constituents in their district they not only sponsor more legislation but also vote more moderately on the issue. Thus, failing to contact your legislator could lead to not being seen, which in turn could leave you out of the policymaking process.

So should we feel good about the evidence that contacting your elected legislator shapes their view of the district and subsequent legislative behavior?  On the one hand, yes we should. From a democratic perspective, it is encouraging that the simple act of writing or calling your representative makes a difference.  It is an important opportunity for “regular” citizens to make their voices heard.  On the other hand, scholars have long found that the people who are most likely to write or call their representative are more likely to be white, educated, and wealthy.  The concern suggested by my research is that these established patterns of biases in constituency contact will be translated into biases in representation.