JP Observer: Speech is money: It’s OK to voice opinions to other legislators in D.C.

A record-breaking number of people contacted Washington with their opinions during the first two months this year, according to an article in the March 6 New Yorker.

“Members of Congress claim that, Senate-wide, the call volume for the week of Jan. 30, 2017, more than doubled the previous record; on average, during that week, the Senate got 1.5 million calls a day,” the article reported. “Three of those days—Jan. 31, Feb. 1, and Feb. 2—were the busiest in the history of the Capitol switchboard.”

Analysts say advocacy groups urge members to contact Congress, but people seem to be organically driven by the news to express themselves these days, as well.

“Contact your senator/representative right away and urge them to [fill in the blank],” is a common request. Since Republican Donald Trump became president last January accompanied by a majority Republican House and Senate, many liberal solicitations urge people to express their dislike of a piece of legislation, regulation, or nominee.

Up to now, it has been commonly accepted by pretty much everyone that people should only contact their own senators (two per state) and representative (one from the district where the person lives) about national issues.

It’s strangely disappointing for those of us in Jamaica Plain to hear all the ways the tax bill is terrible, for example, and then be exhorted to call our federal elected officials. At first, it’s like, “Yeah I’m going to do that! This bill needs to be defeated!”

Then we remember, all three of our federal legislators have said they hate the tax bill and all the other radical Trump proposals. They may have already even voted against them, too. Darn. Nobody for us to contact after all, except to thank our local senators and representative one more time.

It happens to liberals here and in other blue states and cities again and again. Probably to conservatives in conservative states, too.

Speaking at a benefit for Health Law Advocates in Boston in 2015, Sen. Elizabeth Warren pointed out the positive voting record of Massachusetts Congress people on health care issues. She encouraged people to contact friends and relatives in other states to ask them to talk to their federal elected representatives about important issues.

Even that can be frustrating when we realize we don’t have friends or relatives in red states.

Modern information technology and social media are bringing people of different regions of this country together nowadays like never before. Decisions made at the federal level affect millions of us, and everyone is more aware of that. Jamaica Plain people love to discuss, learn about, and take action on nation issues.

The informal prohibition against contacting federal legislators in other parts of the country feels outdated, clumsy and unnatural, and needs to be ignored.

Earlier this month I was calling Republicans identified as possibly open to voting no on the tax bill. I very politely suggested that the bill was too radical and gave just a couple of brief examples usually on voice mail, but occasionally to a staff person.

I came across several ways the officials in Washington D.C. deal with the location of their callers.

Many senators and representatives are subtle, since there are no official rules. A recording or person simply asks callers who want to express their opinions to leave their ZIP Code or address. The intimidating implication is that you should say nothing and hang up if you don’t have a “correct” one.

Some recordings and statements are more direct. The voice of Sen. Todd Young of Indiana says, “Hoosiers wishing to leave their thoughts or opinions on legislation or a confirmation in the US Senate, press one.” No choice was offered for non-Hoosiers.

A recording by a senator from Oregon says he would like to hear from “Oregonians.”

People who sounded like young staff assistants or interns answered the phone at three representatives’ offices.

A staffer at one office asked me for my ZIP Code and then said, “Thank you for calling.” I asked, “Are you going to pass on my comment?” He said snippily, “Thank you for calling.”

So I was happily surprised when aides in two other offices asked my ZIP Code at the end of the call, but then said firmly and somewhat enthusiastically, it seemed, “I will pass on what you said to the representative.”

An inexplicable recording of several verses of “Hail to the Chief” played while I was on hold for staff of one senator. It was then I had an epiphany. And it welled up from a Citizens United source, of all places. (Maybe it was the influence of all the Republicans I was calling.)

Money is speech.

And it occurred to me that all of us should feel free to call any federal elected official we see fit, and not just because their decisions affect all of us, which is the best reason. And not just so they can hear from regular US people who might have a fresh view on issues, though that’s good, too.

As long as elected officials take campaign contributions from outside their districts, those officials can and should consider thoughts and opinions from people around the country, too.

If money gets treated the same as speech, (US Supreme Court, Jan. 2010) then speech has to be treated the same as money.

I am about to make some more calls to Republicans from around the country, asking them to vote no on the tax bill that came out of the conference committee. I plan to proudly say I am a Bay Stater this time. (I may also tell them who a Bay Stater is, since most people don’t know, I read recently.)

Then, for the ones who limit whose opinions they want to hear to people in their districts, I will remind them of those donations.

None of us should feel intimidated about calling any elected legislator’s office in Washington. Everyone should be encouraged to contact senators and representatives of either party and any state in the US in the future.

There will be more important, heinous bills, regulations and appointments to oppose, no doubt. And maybe, if 2018 elections make a positive difference, there will be those we want to support.

Sandra Storey is founder and former publisher and editor of the Jamaica Plain Gazette.


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