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keeping in close and continuous contact with constituents while the congress
man is in Washington.
Depending on the district's distance from Washington, the average
number of trips back to the district per month ranges from one or two for
most Western States congressmen to four or more for many members from the North
east. Members from the South, Great Lakes, and Central States regions usually nake two or three trips per month. Regional norms seem to hold fairly well,
except that some high seniority and politically secure members do return to the
district less frequently, especially if they have heavy committee or leadership responsibilities. And on the other hand, congressmen from politically marginal districts are likely to visit the district somewhat more often than
When in the district, the pace and distribution of activity varies
widely. Congressmen from active urban districts are likely to be on the go
continuously with a tight schedule which might include meetings with community leaders and local government officials, public appearances at schools and business clubs, and visits with the local media representatives. In rural and
mixed districts where the population is more widely dispersed, congressmen
generally spend more time moving around the district from town to town,
talking with people on the street, and holding public office hours.
2. Written or print channels. The personal letter via Washington is
clearly the congressman's most important written channel of constituent communi
cation and ranks fourth among all channels, of somewhat less but still signif
icant perceived importance are the report or newsletter which ranks tenth
and the survey or questionnaire which ranks eleventh. Most congressmen receive
several hundred letters a week from constituents, and a major problem is the
report a 10-15% increase over last year, although
data for the House as a whole suggest an annual rate of increase of about
Nonetheless, for most purposes, constituents are encouraged to write
rather than call or visit, because experience seems to indicate that the act
of putting one's ideas down on paper leads to a more articulate and better
thought out communication. And many offices do keep at least an approximate
count of the mail in order to monitor opinion, while recognizing that only a
small minority of constituents (perhaps no more than 5-10%) ever write at all.
In order to cope with the mail situation, almost all offices use some
kind of automatic typewriter or "robotype" to respond to form letters, petitions, organized interest group mail, and constituent opinion mail on big volume issues. This conserves time for those casework and legislative letters which require an individually drafted reply.
About three-quarters of the offices in the sample send out & survey or
questionnaire on a regular basis to every household in the district using the
postal patron privilege. But despite this wide use, only 10% of the sample offices perceived questionnaires to be "very important," frequently because the main purposes served are to get the name of the congressman before
constituents and to give constituents something to respond to, with only
secondary emphasis on actually getting a valid sampling of constituent views.
Most everyone seems to agree that questionnaires are quite vulnerable
to bias both in the way questions are selected and written, and in the way the
responses are interpreted. In addition, relatively few constituents ever
complete and return their questionnaire. The average household response rate
is 9.3%, with a mode and median of 10%, and a range of 2-20%.
response rate is somewhat higher for districts with Republican congressmen,
12%, as compared to 6.75% for Democratic districts, perhaps in part reflecting the more affluent and educated nature of Republican districts in this sample.
While congressmen send many other kinds of printed material to their
constituents--Congressional Record reprints, government pamphlets, copies
of speeches and bills, and assorted reports and newsletters--the report or
newsletter is the only one of these viewed as important, ranking somewhere
between the personal letter and questionnaire. Like most everything else,
the quality and quantity of congressional newsletter varies dramatically. Some members place a high priority on trying to educate constituents about current
issues and legislation. But more commonly, the newsletter serves to publicize
the congressman's recent activities in Washington, present the member's views
on current events and legislation, and identify the congressman with various
constituent groups and individuals known in the district.
The average frequency in this sample is 4.45 newsletters per year, but
with a mode and median of 2-3 per year. Usually one or two newsletters per
year go to all postal patrons, with additional reports sent only to more
selective mailing lists.
There is some indication that the frequency of news
letters falls off with increasing seniority and political security.
3. News media channels. With the exception of letters, the face-to
face and written constituent communication channels have at least one charac
teristic in common--their use by the congressman is to a large extent under his own control. In contrast, use of news media channels requires at least a minimum amount of cooperation, interest, and initiative on the part of media
reporters and editors. Because such media coverage is generally perceived as
important, congressmen make considerable effort to establish and maintain
good media relations.
District newspaper coverage is ranked very high--fifth in overall
importance--and is followed closely by press releases to the district media
(which help facilitate media coverage in general) and radio news coverage,
ranking eighth and ninth respectively. Somewhat surprisingly, television news
coverage ranks only twelfth. And the signed newspaper column is the least
important of news media channels. This ranking apparently reflects the feeling
that congressmen have better access to and get more attention from the press,
radio, and television in that order.
One explanation is that district newspapers are far better represented
in Washington than are district radio and television. Most congressional
districts do have one or more radio stations, but the initiative lies largely with the congressman, as evidenced by the increasing use of recorded telephone "beeper" calls direct from Washington to the local stations.
And access to broadcast television is clearly the most restricted, at least from the viewpoint of members whose districts are either in major media markets (where competition for television attention is intense and each congressional district accounts for only a small part of the total market) or in very minor media markets (where local television coverage is very limited or nonexistent). Perceived quality of television coverage tends to be higher when
the district covers a large part of the relevant media market.
Where television coverage of congressmen is poor (in major urban areas and the rural areas), radio takes on special importance. And if in addition the district is not well-covered by major daily newspapers, then the signed
newspaper column in the weekly or community newspaper takes on significance.
of course, media news coverage also depends on a number of other
factors like (a) the editorial and operational policies of media management,
(b) the stature of the particular congressman in the community, (c) competition for coverage from other public office-holders, and (a) the receptivity of the
particular member to use of the media.
Individual telecommunication channels. Whereas use of news media
for constituent communication is basically a one-way mass process--one congress
man to many constituents--and requires the cooperation of an intermediary (the
newspaper, radio, or television station), individual telecommunication channels
are typically used for two-way exchange between two individuals with the medium under their own control.
The standard telephone call is the most important of these telecommuni
cation channels and ranks sixth overall--right up with the face-to-face district
visit, personal letter, and newspaper coverage. Telephone calls via the district
office are perceived as more important than calls direct to Washington. The
telegraph ranks much lover (15th), primarily because telegrams are viewed as
too costly and/or unreliable for most purposes. Conferencephone or speakerphone hook-ups rank 22nd in overall importance, and are used sporadically by about one-third of the offices in the sample to facilitate two-way small group interaction. But these group calls are often found to be less than satisfactory from a technical or visceral point-of-view.
The volume and destination of incoming constituent phone calls seems to
be largely a function of distance. Congressmen with districts near Washington
have a problem with heavy phone volume, in part because of low phone tolls.
Constituents tend to call in on the spur of the moment, for example after reading
& provocative article in the morning paper. When the district is further away,