About 70 percent of congressional staff say they would or likely would accept requests for meetings from constituents, according to a survey led by Profs. Alexander Furnas and Timothy LaPira. (Disclosure: I helped design this survey.) And this holds no matter who they are—we found no evidence that staff were more likely to take meetings from campaign donors or lobbyists.
The average reader might find this mystifying. “Why would a legislator or his staff want to meet with me?” The answer is straightforward: to earn your vote. Legislators fear losing a primary or general election race. They are all too aware of the various cautionary tales of legislators who got beat because they lost touch with their voters. It is an easy lift for a congressional office to hold a 15-minute or 30-minute meeting and send a constituent away feeling his voice has been heard.
Now, to be clear, whether your legislator does anything in response is another matter entirely. Passing a law, blocking legislation, or reversing a regulation is very difficult for a single legislator to do. According to the Furnas et al. study, a constituent can increase the odds her opinion gets acted upon by citing research published by a think tank favored by the legislator. Doing so indicates you have done your homework, and staff tend to give weight to evidence from think tanks.
One last reason more Americans should visit their legislator’s office is to counteract elite influence. Think about it: Who tends to seek meetings with Congress? Lobbyists, members of interest groups, and partisan political operators—AKA special interests. Legislators and staff hear from them disproportionately, which skews their perspectives. Matters are exacerbated further by partisan primaries, which incentivize legislators to focus their thinking on the views of their most extreme voters. Showing up and talking with your members of Congress’ offices can help counterbalance these forces that distort legislators’ views. (Assuming you are not an extremist yourself.)
Visiting a legislator’s office seems far-fetched and is hardly anyone’s idea of fun. But doing so is easier than you imagine, and can advance your interests and bolster your faith in representative self-government.