An Alternative to Calling Our Member of Congress

Old print telephone ad
Photo from Matthew Paul Argall

One year is 8,760 hours. And of those many hours, let's pull out just four to six of them. Or 0.06 percent of a year. Now let's put that figure on the shelf for a moment.

First, I want to talk about The Question on the top of everybody's mind these days: What is the role of the District Director in a U.S. House Member's Office?

Well, good friend, buckle up because your days of wondering are over!

House Members have a few offices they can work from: one in D.C. on Capitol Hill and a few back home in key areas of their district. Typically, the D.C. office is where sausages are made (that's flowery language for policymaking) and the district offices are where constituent services happens.

Constituent services help folks sort out problems with Social Security, veterans benefits, passports, and other federal programs. (Give'em a buzz if you're ever having an issue; regardless of party, they're there to help navigate federal government waters.) With Congress passing very few bills, much of what gets Members reelected - besides raw, teeth-gnashing partisanship - is this direct service work.

D.C. staff can have a short shelf life; heavy hours and light pay comes at a cost. (I was one of the lucky ones: I worked for great legislators with a lot of long-term staff.) But district staff tend to stay longer. One District Director I worked with did the job for 17 years. Another for six.

District Directors not only run the district offices, but they often know the boss's constituency as well, if not better, than most everyone else on staff. When I worked in Congress, a call from the District Director was a top priority. He was the boss's eyes and ears on the ground.

So rather than calling our Member of Congress's D.C. office, why not focus on building a relationship with the District Director. We don't have to schlepp to Washington to make our case, they can be our voice to the ever-changing policy team on Capitol Hill, and we can engage them on a range of issues (unlike policy staff who have distinct portfolios).

Now you might be thinking, Why would the District Director ever want to meet with me? I'm no policy pro. I just want to drop my kid off at school and not worry if she'll make it home alive or I just want diabetes or asthma medication that doesn't break the bank or I just want paid family leave while I'm caring for my father with cancer. They already hear from tons of people on this stuff, what else can I add?

Let me paraphrase the great Dolly Parton: I sing about what people have been singing about forever - lying, cheating, being done wrong, doing wrong. But nobody's sung it in my voice.

Our voice and the stories behind it are singular. And stories, more than anything else, are how we constituents can help change policy.

Policy can be abstract. Stories make it human. President Obama told people's stories to make the financial crisis real. Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear told people's stories to make tornado devastation real. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer told people's stories to make the challenge of access to reproductive care real.

Maybe a car nearly hit you when you were out walking with your pup. You come from a family of NRA members and you're the lone holdout. Your kiddo is never more alive than when playing in the school band and funding just got cut for it. Our stories are policy off the page and out in the world. Those deserve to be heard. (Just make sure it's a federal issue, not a state or local issue.)

How to kickstart a relationship with the District Director? Few ways to slice the apple.

Cold Email

  • Google your U.S. House Member and "District Director" to find the DD's name. Some Members won't have them, but most do.
  • Send a friendly, short email introducing yourself, your issue, thanking them for their boss's work on the issue so far (if they've done any), and offering up a few times to meet when the boss is in D.C. Click here for the 2024 legislative calendar. They'll have more flexibility when the boss isn't in town. Include your mailing address under your signature (if you're comfortable), so it's clear you're a constituent.

Sign up for your Member's newsletter (a good idea anyways) and/or look on their website under News or Press Releases to see if they have any upcoming events you can attend. For events the Member is at, the District Director will often be with the boss and you can introduce yourself there, get a card, and do a warm email from that.

Before meeting with the District Director, let's spend a few minutes on these useful bits right here.

Read up on your Member's history with your issue. Have they voted on it before (check, made speeches (check their website), posted on social media. Make reference to that history when you have the meeting; it shows you've done your homework, which makes you more trustworthy to staff.

Some think it's offensive to remind a staffer what their boss has done on an issue. But staffers hold 17 plates in the air at once, they can't remember every vote or statement their boss has made. It's just a friendly memory jog.

Have an ask. It could be, "Cosponsor this bill," "Make a statement on X," "Come speak at our event on Y." Members have many powers at their fingertips.

If this seems a bit much and you'll just duck out the side door, you're not really a policy person anyways, come on back inside!

Just as we'd learn a few useful phrases when headed to another country, we're only familiarizing ourselves with the policy landscape so we can maneuver as effectively as possible. Staff don't expect us to be pros.

If our Member's priorities are wildly different from our own, there's still plenty that would make our world better that isn't partisan: lowering insulin costs, safe streets for students, accountability in drone strikes, and much more. If the major thoroughfare of your issue is partisan, see if there's a side alley where you can carve out shared space.

So back to that 4-6 hours figure. Rather than spend a few minutes every time we're upset calling our Member of Congress (not worthless, but we'll get into that another time), we could commit 0.06 percent of our year to building a relationship with the District Director. Which could go quite a bit further than all our phone calls combined, and give our hearts a lift as we walk into a year thick with ugly political news.

And one last thing. Let's say thanks.

After you meet with the District Director - or if they delegate you to a district staffer, which is just fine - send a short thank you. If they do what you ask them to do, send a great big thank you.

We're building the world we want to live in in the building of it, and gratitude is a very fine building block for any possible future.

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