The rigors of the campaign are still fresh, and newly elected House members and senators are exhausted. But there’s one task I’d advise them to tackle right away: learning how to do constituent services right.
Many years ago, when I was still in the House, I accompanied a senator to a public meeting. A woman approached him afterward to ask for help with a Social Security problem. Irritably, my colleague told her that he didn’t have time; he had important policy issues to deal with. I have never forgotten the look of helpless chagrin on that woman’s face.
Self-interest alone would have counseled a more helpful approach. People notice. And they care. That senator who rebuffed the plea for help? He was defeated in the next election.
But there’s more to it than currying favor with the electorate. Good constituent service, I believe, is crucial to being a good elected representative.
Government is big, complex, confusing, and touches a huge number of lives. It can be agonizingly slow. It makes mistakes and then drags its heels fixing them. Its rules and regulations can be hard to navigate at the best of times. Ordinary Americans get caught up in the gears, and they need help.
Though it’s a habit for legislators to think of policy-making and constituent service as two distinct halves of their responsibilities, that’s not always the case. A surge of veterans having trouble getting their benefits, for instance, ought to be a warning sign. Workers may be struggling to remain efficient, or they may need additional staff and resources. Either way, it bears investigating and, possibly, legislative action.
The challenge, of course, is that helping constituents with their problems isn’t easy. It demands staff and time. It means being careful to avoid even a hint that a constituent’s party affiliation matters. It requires walking a fine line with the bureaucracy — which can sometimes resent congressional “meddling” — so that you’re helpful without going overboard on a constituent’s behalf.
But that’s no reason to downplay constituent service. Because the need is endless. I’ve been out of public office for over a decade, yet the other day a neighbor stopped me on the street to ask for help speeding up a visa application. Americans need a point of contact with their government. If you’re a public official — or even an ex-public official — get used to the idea that you’re it.
— Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.