An Introduction to @ContactCongress
ContactCongress is a social media account covering legislation currently moving through U.S. Congress. Its purpose is to encourage you to participate in the legislative process beyond elections, with a focus on civil rights and liberties, education, environment, justice and responsible governance. The underlying philosophy is that those issues intersect in the pursuit of a just society.
You can follow the account via:
@ContactCongress@humanities.one: The principle account, located on a Mastodon server I administrate. Posts appear there first, so start there if you use Mastodon or a compatible ActivityPub service, like Pleroma.
RSS/Atom: Mastodon automatically syndicates to Atom, which means you can use an RSS or news reader to follow @ContactCongress, regardless of whether or not you have an account on any of the aforementioned social media platforms.
How It Works
At any given point during a session, Congress is deliberating over hundreds of bills, covering a bewildering range of topics -- everything from the names of individual post offices to sweeping social reform. Members are responsive to a number of a pressures, including lobbyists and interest groups, but the regular check elections place on their power ensures that voters likewise have an ongoing say in how they legislate. Most legislators keep a tally of constituent opinions on particular issues, which helps them estimate popular support or opposition among their constituents. The more constituents reach out to express a position on a given issue, the more weight it's likely to carry with their legislators. @ContactCongress will occasionally post information about Congressional bills of interest. When you see one that matters to you, take a little time to learn more about it, jot down a few points you'd like to raise, then contact your Senators and/or Representative to tell them what you'd like them to do about it. Part of the aim of the account is to provide links to context that will help followers understand what's at stake in a given bill. There are also a number of milestones in the progress of a bill through Congress, and I'll try to post alerts any time a bill I'm tracking approaches one of those milestones. Those milestones include (1) the introduction of a new bill of interest, (2) an amendment that significantly alter the content of a bill, (3) a vote on the bill, and (4) the result of a vote.
Contacting Your Legislators
Former Congressional staffers have explained that the most effective ways for most constituents to contact their legislators are by phone and by email. Because they're more direct and immediate, phone calls are a surer bet, but email is a good option if the prospect of a phone conversation makes you anxious. Messages over social media can be cathartic, but legislators have no reliable process for counting them and often just ignore them altogether. You can find your legislators contact information on the following sites:
Putting them into your phone as contacts will save you time on future calls. Most have offices in both D.C. and their home district, with staffers fielding phone calls at each. If you can't reach them at one office, try the other. Once you've made contact, you'll want to cover the following points:
- Your full name and ZIP Code -- this helps the staffer verify that you're a constituent;
- The bill or issue you're contacting them about -- they may direct you to another staffer who specializes in that particular issue;
- Any personal stake you may have in the topic -- sometimes personal stories can give urgency to your message;
- What position or action you'd like the legislator to take.
You'll almost always be talking to an underpaid staffer who deals with dozens or even hundreds of calls a day, so be brief, clear and polite. Finally, in-person communication can be even more effective than other methods. Some members of Congress hold regular question-and-answer events with constituents. To see if your legislators have any upcoming events, check the Town Hall Project.
Tracking Congress can be tricky, and I'm just one person trying to keep up with as much as I can. From previous experience, I know that there are a couple of contingencies that complicate accurate reporting. One is that news outlets often omit useful information when they cover Congressional legislation -- like the name and number of the bills on which they're reporting. Another is the fact that Congress itself sometimes moves more rapidly than the offices and systems (like congress.gov) that publish information about legislation. The information I post to @ContactCongress will never be intentionally false, but it may sometimes be, despite my best efforts, faulty. My hope is that @ContactCongress will be a useful resource for civic engagement, but it should never be your sole resource.