Lee Hamilton is a senior adviser for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House for 34 years.
Do ordinary citizens still have a voice in Washington, D.C., and in their state capitals? Despite the cynicism of these times, my answer is yes, we do. But we have to exercise it.
I don't just mean going to a town hall meeting and yelling, or shooting off a letter or an email. I mean making an appointment to sit down with your representative – in his or her office, at a cafe in the district, or wherever else you can meet – and holding a real conversation. We don't do this often enough in our country, perhaps because most people think it's impossible to arrange. It's not, although it might take patience to get an appointment with a busy representative. And to my mind, it's the most effective way for citizens to communicate with their representatives.
This is important because the heart of a representative democracy does not lie in its electorate, or even its elected officials. It rests in the communication between them, in the give and take that allows each to understand the other. Over my years in office, I noticed a few things about how to make this conversation more fruitful and effective. For what it's worth, I pass them along.
My guess is that in almost all cases, the representative will be gracious, attentive and welcoming; he or she will see the meeting as a chance to reach out and perhaps win a constituent's support. What makes the difference in these meetings is the manner in which the voter approaches them.
So my first comment is that you want to keep the discussion respectful and polite. Incivility and confrontation are counterproductive. If you want to have an impact, do not be argumentative or confrontational. Explain how the issues affect you personally and make it clear that you're seeking to establish ongoing communication, not just a one-and-done meeting.
If your representative comes to respect you because of your approach and your knowledge, that's an important step forward in expanding your influence. Don't forget that the reverse can also be true: You'll make it easy to ignore you by behaving ungraciously.
This next part may seem daunting, but it shouldn't be: Do your homework. It goes without saying that you should identify yourself and whoever else is with you, let your representative know whom you're representing – don't exaggerate your numbers – and, above all, make it clear what you want him or her to do or not to do. And you'll be far more effective if you're well-informed about the core facts on the issues and about the person you're speaking to: his or her party, length of service, committees, interests, views, ratings and priorities.
Understand that legislators deal with many challenging relationships: voters, donors, constituents, interest groups, party officials, congressional or legislative leadership, governors and presidents, and an array of others. So, listen carefully and ask a lot of questions, and get clarity about where your representative stands on your issues and why. Test his or her knowledge of the issues, and the depth of commitment to the views he or she takes. Be firm in insisting on direct answers, but don't be adamant or unreasonable. If you want to, record the session, but be sure to advise the representative you are doing so.
In short, having a productive conversation with elected representatives comes down to being informed, remaining courteous, being curious and open to dialogue yourself, and stating your views and understanding of the issues as clearly as possible.
If you engage in this fashion with your representatives on a regular basis, I think you'll have reason to be satisfied that you're stepping up to your responsibilities and raising your effectiveness as a citizen. And if conversations of this quality are multiplied across the country, it really will improve the quality of our representative democracy and contribute to the direction and success of our country.