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July 22, 2013 12:41 PM Constituent Disservices

By Ed Kilgore

As anyone who has worked on Capitol Hill or dealt extensively with congressional offices knows, a big chunk of each senator or representative’s budget is devoted to constituent services—answering phone calls, letters and emails requesting information and assistance on problems or opportunities involving the executive branch of the federal government. Indeed, as I can verify from my days working for the Senate, congressional constituent services offices deal with a lot of pleas for help that actually have nothing to do with the federal government; we called them “non-juris” inquiries that we politely answered, usually to direct constituents to the proper authority, or sometimes to gently inform them that no public authority could legitimately assist them with grievances against employers or neighbors or creditors. Indeed, many conservative Members over the years have tried with some success to mitigate voter hostility by building a reputation for first-class constituent services.

I last worked in the Senate about twenty years ago, so maybe my impressions are anachronistic, but I don’t recall congressional offices ever refusing constituent requests on grounds of ideological opposition to the federal services involved. But this has apparently become a fairly standard position for Republican Members of Congress with respect to the Affordable Care Act, to the point that one Republican House member, Lee Terry of Nebraska, is having to publicly defend himself against charges of hypocrisy for having assisted a local government in his district secure a grant for Obamacare implementation. Greg Sargent views this quandry as part of a more general question of “how aggressively” the GOP wants to be in trying to “sabotage Obamacare.”

This isn’t the same same issue as the one raised when Republicans violently denounced economic stimulus legislation and then took credit for the projects it financed. Constituent services represent standard-brand, time-honored congressional responsibility for ensuring citizens get a fair shake from federal agencies, or at least know how to pursue requests and complaints. As Brother Benen puts it, these are “are the most basic of tasks for congressional offices.” If every constituent contact has to be dealt with as an implicit policy statement by the Member, then we might as well just shut down all those state and district offices, or replace them with a voice mail recording or auto-reply that directs citizens to a federal agency hotline.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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