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Is It Cool To Complain To A Member Of Congress Who Doesn’t Represent Me?

Welcome to Survey Says, FiveThirtyEight’s advice column. In each installment, our two advice-givers will take a reader question, debate what he or she should do, and then survey a panel of people about what the best course of action is. Need our advice? Send us your quandary!

A number of my politically active friends and family have been contacting, and encouraging others to contact, elected officials — regardless of whether those officials represent them. I don’t think this is right. I can’t in good conscience write a public official who is outside of my district. (Exceptions might be if that state were my place of employment, or if I regularly vacationed there, or if I were an underrepresented minority and felt I had more kinship with an out-of-district representative.) Moreover, I regularly hear that it’s ineffective because congressional staffs tend to put out-of-district feedback in the discard pile. Also, this crowds out the ability of the constituents to contact their own reps. So you know my opinion. But what do average Americans think about the right to petition other reps? — Jonny

Walt: The ethical question of our times. One side effect of people within congressional districts becoming more alike politically is that oftentimes we’re calling in to preach to the choir. What’s the right thing to do here?

Morgan: I think people shouldn’t contact public officials outside his/her/their district. It is largely ineffective, if I’m not mistaken, and I don’t think it will be heard. I could be wrong, though!

I think he could do other things, such as sign petitions and donate money to organizations such as the ACLU, Meals on Wheels and The Trevor Project.

Walt: I disagree — and agree only with significant exceptions. He can call whoever he wants. He can’t misrepresent himself, though. He needs to identify himself as someone who is not a constituent. He can identify himself as a potential, current or previous campaign contributor. But he has to be unambiguous about where he’s from.

Morgan: Right.

Walt: Like in 2016 alone, by the Center for Responsive Politics’ count, industries spent a cumulative $2 billion lobbying Congress. I doubt they lobbied people only in their own congressional district. And like it or not, lobbying is one of the only professions explicitly protected in the Bill of Rights! By virtue of their being an elected official, you are allowed to present your case to them. As long as you are honest, it’s ethical as far as I’m concerned. But I think you’re right, it’s not going to be effective.

Do you think it’s perfectly OK to contact people who don’t represent you in Congress if they’re on a committee discussing an issue you have an opinion on?

Morgan: It is OK, yes. As you said, you can contact whomever you want. Will it be effective, though? I would say no.

FiveThirtyEight commissioned a SurveyMonkey Audience poll that ran April 12-13 and received 1,271 responses. We presented respondents with Jonny’s letter and asked them what the best advice is, given the situation. They were only allowed to choose one option.

  1. It’s perfectly OK to contact any elected member of Congress if you’re honest that you’re not in their district.

    41.6%

  2. It’s OK to contact them if they’re on a committee related to your interests.

    28.8%

  3. This is not OK.

    8.0%

  4. This is not OK, and there are better uses of your time and resources.

    13.2%

  5. None of the above is good advice.

    8.4%

Walt: It’s every American’s fundamental right to call up whoever they want in their government and complain about whatever they want.

Morgan: That’s true, but is it a proper use of time? I guess it’s none of my business.

AGE
18-29 30-44 45-59 60+
It’s fine if you’re honest 35% 46% 45% 40%
It’s fine if their committee is relevant 33 23 24 37
Not OK! 7 8 9 8
Not OK, do better stuff 14 13 15 11
None of this 12 10 7 3

Numbers have been rounded and may not add up to 100%

Morgan: What do you think, Walt? At least the person wants to contribute.

Walt: The older someone was, the more likely they were to think it’s OK to call Congress.

It’s really not an issue, provided that the caller is honest. And while it might not move the levers of American government, it’ll probably have some sort of placebo effect? The modest lowering of Jonny’s blood pressure could be a net societal good is all I’m saying.

More of our advice:

Walt Hickey is FiveThirtyEight’s chief culture writer.

Morgan Jerkins is a writer living in New York City.

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