In our July article, we discussed the importance of knowing what you want before you ask your legislator for help. We suggested that your member of Congress or state legislator is well prepared to take four actions: introduce legislation, cosponsor existing legislation, vote for or against bills, and go to bat with other branches of government on your behalf. Any of these “asks” is fair game.
But save your breath if you are thinking about any of the following requests—these are things not to ask your legislators for:
Special actions favoring you or your business. Your elected officials cannot guarantee a government or private contract, grant, or other government or private action that favors your business. This is illegal and unethical, and, in fact, some former legislators are in jail for this very crime. Elected officials shy away from any implication that they are using their influence to extract money from an agency or private entity for a constituent. This is not to say, however, that your legislators cannot send a general letter of support from an existing grant request, saying something like, “I hope you will give this grant request every consideration.” Such a letter would not say, “You must approve this grant request.” (We know this looks like a very fine line!)
One of Stephanie’s favorite memories as a congressional staffer involves this kind of request. Some constituents were moving their carry-out restaurant to a new location. They were concerned because the new location, unlike the old one, did not have the advantage of having a post office next door; it seems that the post office generated a lot of hungry foot traffic. So the owners asked Stephanie’s boss to arrange to move the post office so that it would be near their new location! For a congressional office to act on this request would have been unethical, not to mention impractical.
Legal/tax/real estate advice. Your elected officials cannot help you with specific legal or tax questions, such as whether you can claim certain deductions, or the detailed legal implications of real estate transactions. It is appropriate, of course, to contact your representatives to seek changes to a law you think is unfair or unwise, but they cannot guarantee a remedy.
Personal/scholastic favors. Your elected officials cannot draft your term paper for you or send you government reports on a moment’s notice. Government agencies do produce reports on all manner of topics, but your legislator needs plenty of notice to obtain them.
Issues relating to other levels of government. Often, people will write asking their U.S. representative or senator to cosponsor or introduce legislation that is being considered at the state level. Not possible. Likewise, a number of things are regulated solely at the state or local level—local utilities and zoning codes, for example. While members of the U.S. House and Senate may play a role in national legislation to set the framework for how electricity is regulated or how localities manage their land, they play no formal role in the actual regulation.
Issues relating to other branches of government. Legislators can certainly help you in your interactions with other branches of government. They can send letters, set up meetings and help you sort through the “red tape” of a bureaucracy. But they do not write the regulations that determine how new and existing federal or state programs will be implemented. As a result, they cannot unilaterally change those regulations.
Issues relating to…well, you figure it out. Even when it involves a law, sometimes there is nothing a Congress member can do. “Dear Senator,” wrote one constituent, “In my opinion, I would suggest that if the Senate and Congress would abolish that awful law of supply and demand, it would increase production…The law of supply and demand is a burden to the consumer because they foot all the bills.” Some laws are simply beyond a legislator’s reach. Another great example of this is the law of gravity.
Finally, out of sheer desperation, or maybe profound misunderstanding, a constituent request may just leave you scratching your head. “Dear Congressman,” began one beleaguered soul. “Why is it it (sic) rains so much in Mississippi that there is always floods and it’s always dry in Oklahoma. Why can’t Congress see to it that it rains where we need it?”
To advocate effectively, know what you want, whom to ask and what’s appropriate to ask for! iBi