I recently received an email from a reader who, while no supporter of President Trump, still harbors the hope that Congress will “listen and govern with integrity.”

His question: “What resources do people use for contacting their representatives? Is there a recommended format that would elicit their attention to one’s concerns?”

I sent him the telephone numbers for all four members of Maine’s congressional delegation, along with a useful list now circulating online of do’s and don’ts when making such a call.

“Good luck!” I told him.

But even as I hit the send button, I wondered: Do these calls truly matter anymore? Or have we reached the point on Capitol Hill where votes are so rooted in ideology and partisan marching orders that the lone constituent call from back home, however heartfelt, has about as much impact as a howl at the moon?

So I reached out to a couple of friends who once worked in high-level positions for members of Congress from Maine. I promised I wouldn’t use their names to avoid embarrassing them or their old bosses – and to encourage their candor.


“When people call,” I asked both, “do our elected representatives listen?”

Replied one, “It absolutely does make a difference. Maybe there are times when voices aren’t important, but right now it’s hard for elected officials to ignore those voices.”

Said the other, “It depends. If it’s a hot-button issue, yes.”

Take, for example, the imbroglio that until Wednesday afternoon surrounded Sen. Susan Collins and the impending floor vote on Secretary of Education nominee Betsy DeVos.

Collins, while voting in committee this week to forward DeVos’ nomination to the full Senate, simultaneously expressed reservations over the nominee’s “lack of familiarity” with a 1975 federal law that ensures proper education for children with disabilities.

Of course, many other Mainers also have problems with DeVos’ devotion to private, for-profit charter schools, her stunning lack of experience in both education and management, and her for-the-ages observation that guns are needed in certain Wyoming schools “to protect from potential grizzlies.”


The problem with conveying all of this to Collins?

Her phone lines were jammed. Her voicemail was also full and unable to record any more messages.

Why? Because Collins’ numbers, both in Maine and Washington, D.C., had been hijacked by people from all over the country who saw her as a potential Republican swing vote on DeVos and wanted to nudge her one way or the other.

“We are certainly getting a lot of calls, and almost 90 percent of them are from out of state,” Collins lamented in an email Wednesday. “That’s a little bit frustrating because I want to hear from Mainers on these nominations and we are, but we also have a lot of constituents who are trying to get through with questions about the healthcare bill that I’ve introduced and who also need help with casework.”

(Collins, who announced Wednesday afternoon that she would vote against DeVos, suggested that those who can’t get through leave a message via her website, www.collins.senate.gov/contact.)

All of which brings us to Rule 1 of calling Capitol Hill: If you’re not actually a constituent of the targeted member of Congress, your call amounts to little more than a pain in the posterior.


Thus it’s crucial, assuming you’re lucky enough to get through, to immediately state your name, hometown and zip code.

Also, if you don’t require a response, say so – it saves the staffer answering the call the trouble of entering you into a response database.

Rule 2: Get to the point. But be yourself.

If a half-dozen issues are stuck in your craw, pick one. Hold onto the others for another day.

At the same time, don’t let others put words in your mouth.

Political activists, particularly on the left, lately have been flooding email inboxes with blasts that not only exhort you to call your congressional representatives, but also instruct you on exactly what to say.


Take this recent “call script” put out by former Portland state Rep. Diane Russell:

Good Morning. I am calling to say how horrified I was to learn that when no one was looking in the middle of the night – Senator Collins voted to repeal Obamacare. I’ve voted for her because she was a moderate who worked across the aisle, but she has clearly left Maine behind this week. First (Attorney General nominee Jeff) Sessions, and now repealing ObamaCare? This is unacceptable.

For starters, Obamacare has not yet been repealed. And if you have actually never before voted for Collins, isn’t Russell instructing you to lie?

Beyond all that, put yourself in the place of the weary, hyper-caffeinated worker bee in Collins’ office who hears, for the 50th time in less than an hour, that yet another Mainer was “horrified” because Collins “left Maine behind” and that this is “unacceptable.”

(Perhaps they should add: “I’m (insert name) and I did not create this message!”)

“If it’s real, from constituents, then they’d better listen,” advised one of our ex-staffers. “But all this scripted, consultant nonsense, I know the impact that it has – and that’s zero. Original and heartfelt – they’re going to look at it 100 times more than if you follow a script. And you know what? I don’t blame them.”


In fact, noted the other former insider, many congressional offices keep two tallies – one of the mass emails and scripted phone calls, the other of people who at least took the time to compose their own thoughts.

“A personal, telling statement is more likely to be bumped to senior staff or even the member of Congress,” that person said.

Rule 3: No temper tantrums.

Now more than ever, comity counts. If you call a congressional office foaming at the mouth, or if you send an email or website message dripping with venom, how do you think the person on the receiving end is going to react?

“If you want to find a way to get your call discounted, that’s the way to go,” said one of our ex-staffers.

You see, working in a congressional office these days is no picnic. The hours are endless, the phones literally never stop ringing and trust me, the person actually taking your call has never, ever cast a vote on anything.


So go ahead and jump into our roiling democracy. But whatever your motivation, complaint or complement, try not to be like the guy in the White House.

Keep it civil.

Correction: This story was updated at 8:44 a.m. on May 22, 2017 to clarify that the telephone-call script was distributed by former state Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:


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