Engage Show 63: Inside Congress
On this week’s episode, Mark Strand, President of the Congressional Institute, joins us to talk about the inner workings of Congress and how new media and other technology are changing the way the institution works. You should check out the Congressional Institute’s site, Mark’s Sausage Factory Blog, and follow Mark on Twitter.
As promised during the show, here’s all you ever wanted to know about mimeograph machines.
Eric: Hello and welcome to the Engage Show, Episode 63! This is Eric Wilson I’m joined by Jordan Raynor, who is in studio.
Jordan: Hello everybody!
Eric: He is in town in D.C. up from Tampa, FL for the Campaign Tech conference where he spoke today. We have a great guest today, Mark Strand. He is the President of the Congressional Institute, which is a nonprofit dedicated to helping members of Congress and helping them to better serve their constituents and helping their constituents better understand the operations of Congress. Mark also has a blog which I love the name, it’s the Sausage Factory, where he gives an insider’s look at how Congress looks. First of all Mark thanks for joining us.
Mark: My pleasure. It’s great to be here with you today Eric.
Eric: Well let’s get started — can you tell us a little bit more about the Congressional Institute’s mission and what it does and how it achieves that mission?
Mark: Well you summed it up pretty well our whole purpose is to help the public better understand Congress as an institution and help members better communicate with their constituents. And we’ve done a number of things we hold retreats for members of Congress, their chiefs of staff, we do a number of studies, most recently we’ve done about six in a row of new media and using that for members to better communicate with their constituents. The book Surviving Inside Congress — that’s become a guide for new staff members. And we even host the Congressional art competition, which is an art competition for all high school students across the entire country and the winners from each Congressional district have their pictures hanging in the halls of Congress for a year.
Jordan: Very cool. Mark so this is actually the first time we’re meeting but I obviously know you and your bio reputation very well. You’ve been in D.C. for a while you were on the Hill for almost 25 years. What’s the biggest thing that’s changed in your time being in D.C. in terms of dealing with Congress?
Mark: There’s so much that has changed. The very nature of relationships have changed in terms of Congress is a much more highly polarized place than it was when I first started back in 1982, Ronald Reagan was president. And I was up there about 23 years in both the House and Senate. But the other big thing that has changed is communication. When I first started as a Press Secretary in 1980s for Stan Harris from Virginia the way we went about our press basically was we typed them up, run them off on the mimeograph, stick them in an envelope and send them out to the local newspapers. Three days later we’d get a call back and get a few questions about that. We did have a couple local newspapers that had deadlines but the deadlines were later in the evening because they can’t run to press in the morning, and the television stations had news at 6 and 11 and so people got their news by timing and now you had all day long to get your story lined up. Today it’s a 24/7 news cycle. News is not only delivered by network television but by the 247 cable news operations. Blogs have become a way of stimulating news. Things like the Drudge Report are one of the most widely read websites on the Hill. These things didn’t exist a while ago. They are flooded with information coming at them from all different directions and the response time that offices have when some issue comes up whether it’s in the press or whether it’s with their constituents has shrunk to fifteen minutes to an hour now as opposed to having an entire day to a week to come up with something on a task.
Eric: Well in our show notes were going to have to link to the Smithsonian for a mimeograph. I couldn’t even describe one to you mark. So let’s take a look at the other side of the equation. How have constituents and their interactions with Congress changed over the years?
Mark: Well it’s gone from being, seeing Congress almost as, well let me put it this way even better. It used to be for instance that writing a letter to Congress was sort of like, a major act of sort of civil religious in this country. People saw this as something very valuable they did once in a blue moon over some issue that was very very important to them. Now constituents communicate very quickly. When they have a problem with a product now they go on the website and they type into the box what their problem is, they get an email back instantaneously saying someone will be in touch with you within 24 to 48 hours. And usually they get an email responding to what their particular problem was. They have the same expectations with Congress right now. Each Congressional office gets about 100,000 communications a year, that’s 2,000 a week. That takes a huge amount of manpower and resources to be able to respond to that many constituent requests every week. Constituents also expect members to respond much more critically than they did in the past. Members used to be able to spend a couple weeks preparing a letter, and constituents expect a much faster. Part of that has changed because of email, I think because regular mail is so slow on the Hill. If you remember after 9/11 there was also an anthrax attack on Capitol Hill, as a result all snail mail has to go through a radiation cycle and it sometimes takes a week or more before an office even receives the letters from their constituents. And of course in this point in our society that’s already late. So the time pressure on members of Congress responding to constituents has changed and in a very difficult situation because they’re not getting more people their budgets aren’t getting any bigger.
Jordan: Mark you mentioned email, what other specific technologies have changed life on Capitol Hill and how have members and staff and you all at the institution adapted to those changes in technology?
Mark: You know one of the things we’ve tried to do is provide information to members of Congress on how best to meet the new technology changes. One of the first studies we did was just what are our constituents looking for on a website? And we found that almost no websites were actually providing what constituents wanted. What they generally speaking wanted from the website was to find out how their member voted and why on an issue that was a concern for them. So one thing you couldn’t’ find on most members website was their voting record. That’s changed. Also the idea of newsletters and we’ve done a number of studies on who wants newsletters. In terms of not everyone under the age of 50 would prefer to get their political news from an e-newsletter as opposed to getting a piece of snail mail or especially if it looks like a flip brochure. The only group that really likes to receive paper mail anymore are seniors. So people want to receive email and political information from their members of Congress by email. They’re starting to use other things. Twitter is growing. Republicans in Congress are very good at using Twitter. And Twitter as you is a factor if you can drive people to a website. Facebook, we’ve done a lot of studies of Facebook it’s growing, members of Congress are getting more friends but it’s not really quite there yet as a political tool. Increasingly members are having really good websites although they have only 2500-5000 friends and that’s on the good sites, or followers. And as a result they are becoming very good at using the technology to recruit more people to actually get information from them. The other thing we’ve looked at most recently was a study on online advertising and members of Congress are allowed to use online advertising for certain purposes and we did a study to see what worked and what didn’t, with a number of surprises.
Eric: You know Mark I want to talk about that report in a minute but I want to back up to something you said a moment ago about, with budgets getting smaller, the new majority has been committed to sort of making the cuts start with them before they go to the rest of the government and obviously with Americans sort of tightening their belts. But one of the really interesting problems that people don’t understand is that you’re asking members of Congress and their staff to do more, tackle, provide more help with federal agencies as Americans turn to these agencies during the downturn in the economy. You’re asking people to handle complex issues like health care, taxation, global economy, homeland security, all these issues and you’re asking them to do it with fewer resources. What sort of burden does that put on Congress?
Mark: It is a huge burden but it also creates huge opportunity. One of the most important things to remember of Congress is to be able to communicate with the constituents. You know it was never thought that congressional districts would get so big. One of the little known facts is that James Madison made twelve proposals to the Constitution. The first ten of which became the bill of rights, the eleventh one, one that members passed over 200 years later, but the twelfth one he had would have limited congressional districts to no more than 50 thousand constituents. Because he was convinced that after they had gotten much bigger than that members wouldn’t know who they were representing anymore. And they would lose touch. Well, we don’t have six thousand congressional districts because it never passed. But we do have the problem of communicating. New media is creating opportunity. Partly because it costs, because paper mail is just too expensive. You have paper you have to print, you print it out, you have to process and fold it, stick it in an envelope, and you have to pay postage. It’s very expensive to send a single piece of mail. But if you can communicate with people through e-newsletters and through online other sources whether it’s a new media idea, it allows you to communicate directly w your constituents in ways that they now have access they’ve never had before. And you’re now talking to them directly. A great technique we’ve talked about is how Tele-Townhall. Tele-Townhalls allow members of Congress to call their constituents up to 30,000 at a time which will probably get about 3,000 on the call and talk directly to them and take their questions directly. Just this one thing alone has dramatically changed the way constituents think about their members. We did one study that showed that members of Congress that did this four times a year to their constituents increased their job approval numbers by 17%. Why that? Because they respect their constituents enough to get their opinions. So it’s a huge challenge and I don’t mean to minimize it but it’s created a huge opportunity by allowing members to find new ways to communicate more directly with their own constituents.
Eric: So, let’s go back to that report it’s called Putting a Premium on Pixels and it looks at how many members of Congress are using online advertising. With official funds from their MRA, the Members Representational Allowance, its taxpayer dollars, and they’re using those online ads to reach their constituents, what are some of the interesting findings from that report?
Mark: It’s interesting that, an interesting part is what it didn’t do. I really hope that it would show to me that you could use online advertising to get people to sign up for your e-newsletters which would make them sort of permanent partners, that you could communicate with them directly and it turns out that doesn’t have an effect at all. They don’t work that way. What it does do is allow constituents to their members of Congress in action. What we did find out is that constituents are really cynical about anything that does not show direct on their behalf. Anything that looks like an advertisement or campaign piece was seen in a very negative light. Members of Congress doing their job and doing things that are Congressional were for them much appreciated by constituents. Facebook ads we found that people liked that; they had a good click through rate. Yet still members most people still aren’t using FB for getting political information, so it’s still growing. It’s going to be an increasing thing, these online ads, because they’re so inexpensive. In terms of making their questions or communicating with their constituents by far online advertising is the most cheap, the cheapest way you can do that. But I think members of Congress are still trying to figure out the best way to do it.
Eric: So that’s kind of an interesting problem. You touched on that the expectation was that you were going to get people to sign up for their email list, and you know we do this in the political space so we have a little, a lot more freedom actually in the content that we put on the ads. We found that you’ve got to have a really compelling call to action right on those ads. You definitely tap into anger and frustrations that people are having or lift up something that’s good and not with the Franking Commission having such a tight hold on approving every single ad and the Framing Commission for those who are not familiar is split right down the middle, it’s bipartisan, so any ad you want is going to be approved by both sides of the aisle. And so I imagine that provides a lot of challenges for the members and sort of eliciting that direct response that maybe you have a little more leeway to do with, on the campaign side.
Mark: Yeah I think that’s very true. There’s a lot more freedom operation of a campaign side you can try a lot of different things and a lot more restrictions on the House side. But again it’s new and I think part of the reason there’s so many restrictions is that they’re trying not to get too far from themselves. The House is an institution that’s not something known for being able to rapidly change. It’s not the fastest institution when it comes to change; it takes a little bit longer. And the other thing too is that there is a partisan difference when it comes to technology. What will a surprise some of your listeners is that the Republicans are a lot younger and more internet savvy. Most people just assume that it’s different because younger voters in general tend to be more Democrat. But the Republican leadership in general is much younger. You have the two leaders of the Democratic Party; three leaders of the Democratic Party are all over 70 years old. Whereas you have guys like Boehner who’s been there twenty years and who’s in his 60s but Cantor is a young man only in his 10th year. The third ranking Republican is only in his third term, Kevin McCarthy. So they seem to adapt to technology much more quickly and they’re pushing the envelope but you might need to get both parties to go along and the change takes a long time to happen in some parts of the Hill.
Eric: Mark you literally wrote the book on surviving inside Congress. What surprises people the most who are new to the Hill about the way Congress operates?
Mark: I think what surprises most people is that it is nowhere near as glamorous as they thought it would be. You watch a TV show someone has a great big marble office, when you look in reality and you’re lucky the chief of staff might have half a wall built around their desk so they may have a little privacy. It’s like working in a medium size corporate mail room. And corporate mail rooms are actually a lot better than the Hill. The hours are long; the pay per hour is not at all that great compared to the private sector. You know it’s a, you’re constantly under attack by people who have widely criticized Congress at least in the general sense. You know and you’re also ground zero for every crackpot terrorist in the world. So watch yourself, when the reality is lots of people. Every time there’s an opening it’s never advertised anywhere and yet hundreds of people apply for the jobs because it’s one of the few places in the world you can work where you can really change things for the better if you get the opportunity. It’s just so intense and it’s not made for everybody you know the average lifespan of a Congressional career stops at about two and a half years. So, there’s a huge amount of turnover. People don’t stay that long but the ones that do it usually find it very fulfilling. Something I learned quickly is that you don’t want to advertise it too much. I worked for a member of Congress when I first got there and he had the most member plates they have. And you know one day he said why don’t you take my car home for the weekend you know drive him to the airport and you know I drove him to the airport and I thought that was really cool, driving a car with a member of Congress plates. I saw more people tell me that I was number one that day than any other time during my life. At that part I realized that well maybe that wasn’t such a good idea.
Eric: You’re comment about Office Space reminds me of my first job on the Hill. I was working for a leadership office one of the smaller ones, and I came on board a month after Republicans lost the majority. In 2007, we had this great office on the 4th floor of Cannon, we overlooked the Capitol — it was the high ceilings, everything. The next month we’re down in the basements of Cannon, right over the train tracks so every hour you were shaken you could hear every bill, every toilet in the building flush, there was some concerns about asbestos? So it’s definitely kind of a jarring thing whenever people…
Mark: Don’t drink the water whatever you do because the pipes are all corroded!
Eric: …it’s a real real hazardous working environment sometimes. But you’re exactly right it’s a real fulfilling opportunity and I definitely miss being on the Hill and I’m sure as you probably know this more than I do. Anytime you get to go back and meet with folks on the Hill it really does take you back to those days. And I think one of the other things that surprises people a lot when they visit Congress is how young everyone was. I mean I started off when I was 21 years old. I mean some of the older folks in the office can be as young as 35, 36, and you obviously have the member. Go ahead.
Mark: Well I was going to say, one of the biggest challenges when your Chief of Staff up there is managing between generations because people things differently. You know baby boomers don’t like people talking unless they’ve paid their dues. They don’t like email for answers they like to look at a person’s face, and try to read their body language when they’re saying something. The millenniums younger workers coming in are team players. They’ve always been on teams in everything they’ve done it’s been highly organized. New media is not something new they’re learning is something they’ve always had so it’s just a natural extension of the way they communicate. And it turns out that being a team player who’s able to communicate through the new technology can be a real asset in Congressional office. And it turns out being a great place for younger people to work because they bring skills that we needed in the modern world. It’s not necessarily a place for older people especially if you’d like to be home for dinner on occasion. If you have a family it makes it tougher, so it’s a great place for younger people to work and make a contribution very early in life. I remember when we were in the Senate and you know I had a legislative assistant who worked on agriculture issues and she was very very good. And after we lost I called her up and said “I’m surprised you, after working in the Senate you moved down as a secretary,” and she said “Mark, Secretary of Agriculture in the state of Missouri is a pretty good job.” She’s 29 years old! She was a member of cabinet in a state government. It’s a kind of place to launch people’s careers very quickly and allow people with the desire and passion to make an immediate contribution.
Eric: Yeah you’re exactly right. There is so much going on in a congressional office that you actually rely on people all the way down to the unpaid interns to pick up the slack and so it’s definitely I’ve found and this has been my experience that you can pick up a lot of that slack and make a real impression and build skills that will take you onto your next job. So, shifting gears for a minute I’m going to ask you to walk down memory lane. You’ve been on the Hill for a while and observing Congress and so and we’ve talked about the technology, we’ve talked about the communications, but I’m wondering about you know whether say the cafeterias or the parking you know what’s the thing that has changed the most since you first came to Capitol Hill?
Mark: That’s a good question. I would say what’s really changed the most is relationships between people. You know when we’re up there, and you’re younger, you know you start to realize anyone that allows you to sort of have somewhat of an educational background, they’re roughly the same age, make about the same money, you know and there’s some different views on the issues from time to time. And you can be friends with people. And Republicans and Democrats really didn’t have any intention of being friends. But over the years it’s become so much more hostile, many Republicans just don’t have that many Democrats that are members of friends and vice versa. And I think that the real loss that’s become less of a community and more of a battle ground. Yeah I think that the technology has made things truly wonderful. When I was a new legislative assistant I used to get calls for the library of Congress reading room and I’d go underground through the basement and the reading room and you’d pull out microfiche for an article or maybe go through the reader’s side of periodical literature to look up an article that came out monthly. You know and maybe the librarian could help you find it. Now you just go on any computer and you Google it and you pull up something on the internet and instantly have it. The ability get information is just incredible. Information flows through the congressional office and you pick it up as if by osmosis and you just walk through and snatch it out of the air because there’s so much information and people are so much better informed than they were back when I first started. It was hard work to get that knowledge. Now the biggest question is how do you make sure that the knowledge you have is trustworthy. And have good sources. But the ability to do things is exponentially increased because you have so many things right at your fingertips that you didn’t have before, and that’s what’s changed most. The biggest problem of course is that no matter how many tools you get you can still work there 24 hours a day 7 days a week and have more to do. So you still have to manage your time as carefully as ever, but the opportunities to do bigger things are greater because of the technology has brought information so close to people working up there.
Eric: Is there one thing that you know if you could use your magic wand and change that would repair those relationships you know that members would have with each other on sort of a more personal level, make things less combative?
Mark: What I think the Hill definitely needs, John Boehner pointed this out in the speech he did to American Enterprise before Republicans took majority is that we need to sort of go back to a legislative process where people actually had a give and take. You had a committee system where both members of both parties have got to sign off on an amendment to create and shape bills. And what happens is when people who, members of Congress feel respected it doesn’t matter which party they’re in but they’ll tend work with their colleagues to get things done. And then they’ll come away from the process thinking ok well I didn’t get everything I wanted but I had my say and I had my chance to persuade people, maybe I got something. You know when people get something out of the legislative process when more people are involved in it, they support the process. When someone is excluded or shut out and they don’t get the opportunity to offer amendments, they don’t get the opportunity to debate, they get frustrated. And what do frustrated people do? They obstruct. They get angry. The Hill has to go back in action creating legislation they way it was meant to be created which is having all members of Congress who are duly elected by the constituents to participate in a regular order process where they get to offer amendments and have the data on the issues that are important to them. It sounds like it shouldn’t be that hard, but we’ve become so wrapped up in party leadership and you know I like the guys in leadership in the Republican party who have become close to me but the structure of Congress has become so oriented towards the leadership that it’s made it more difficult for individual member to participate directly in the process and I think that’s cost a lot on the hill and has made the place less pleasant to be around.
Eric: That’s a really interesting observation about leadership and I think that you have a post on the Sausage Factory where you talk about what leadership elections mean and the larger impact of those. I think one of my theories on why members don’t have more of those personal relationships is that on a long week, they get in on Monday they fly out on Friday. You know your wives aren’t necessarily coming to town because they’re staying back in the district. Your kids aren’t going to the same school; you’re not going to church with each other on Sundays. Is that a problem that you know obviously if we could say no one’s going to fly anymore that would fix, is that something that as you’ve seen become a problem?
Mark: It is a problem. I think it’s a good observation that people when they were here were closer related. You know some would go home and you know their spouses would say why don’t you stay in the house? I have to see his wife tomorrow. You know you sort of had to correcting, or you’d be rooting on the sidelines of a soccer game and another member of a different party or another staffer but your kids are on the same team. It made people closer and made them more cautious about breaking the trust of friendship, because they had to work for each other. And but at the same time, I think members of Congress felt that they did not, or their constituents felt unheard. And on one of the worst things you can be accused of by your constituents is ‘going Washington.’ And so members of the court believed their constituents want them to be coming home more often. But at the same time it makes the institution a weaker institution. And so members of Congress do things because they have political cues. If your voters are going to turn against you and they have a hostile view of you being in Washington you’re not going to be in Washington. If voters say you know what maybe I want the institution of Congress to work better it might be better if they got along with each other, things could work, but I don’t see that happening for a long time. Americans naturally are cynical about anyone who wants leadership over them, especially when voluntarily. We are and we always have been. The low opinion of Congress is nothing new. People tend to like their own Congressman because they voted for them and they didn’t make a mistake. But those others members of Congress are all a bunch of you know, corrupt hillbillies or you know people they just can’t stand, but that’s natural. Will Rogers made a career; he once said “it’s easy to be a comedian when you have the entire government working for you.”
Eric: Yeah, exactly. Well you know a lot of interesting challenges facing Congress and certainly the Congressional Institute is doing a good job helping them with the resources and sort of the management skills and information they need to be successful to serve their constituents and the effect of legislators. Mark I want to thank you very much for taking the time to chat with us today. If you want to check out the Congressional Institute’s website and the Sausage Factory you can go to conginst.org and Mark’s on Twitter and we will post a link to his Twitter feed in the show notes. Mark thanks again for being here. Jordan good to see you live in studio today. And remember everyone listening you can follow us on facebook.com/engagedc and on twitter.com/engagedc. With that I’ll wrap up this week’s show and thank you for listening.