When 6-year-old Carl Albert heard a member of Congress speak at his one-room school in 1914, he knew he was destined for public service. Years later, a 20-year-old Albert arrived in Washington, D.C., as a National Oration contestant--as a farm boy, he had refined his speaking skills through years of telling stories as he picked cotton in Oklahoma.
As his train pulled into Union Station, Sen. Elmer Thomas was personally waiting to welcome Albert to the nation's capital. The senator then escorted Albert to his lodging and introduced him to President Calvin Coolidge. Though he only squeaked out "nice to meet you" to Coolidge, Albert's relationship with Thomas blossomed into a friendship that paid dividends to his future. He became a congressman, then House Majority Leader and Speaker of the House. In these positions, he came to be known as "The Little Giant."
Many attributed his nickname to his small stature, but it was actually because of his strong relationships with other legislators. These relationships enabled him to work out differences among Congressional members and move giant pieces of legislation into law. Civil rights reform and President Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" were successfully navigated through the House and into public law during Albert's tenure. And it was this "Little Giant" who was in leadership when Congress passed the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act.
Albert may have put his hometown of Bug Tussle, Okla., on the map, but the constituents who actually visited Washington, D.C., were few and far between. Communication with legislators in the 1960s and 1970s was in the form of letters, meet-and-greet events and celebrations, occasional long distance phone calls, and newspaper editorials. Throughout the Little Giant's life and tenure, Congressional offices assumed that for every thoughtful letter from back home, 300 others had the same opinion. Legislators today still have that opinion of a thoughtful letter; however, there are new channels and other media that have changed the way constituents access information.
As we fast forward to the present, the information superhighway has now been paved and repaved. Fewer folks in Bug Tussle spend their days picking cotton pods and blackberries, and more are listening to Podcasts and sending e-mails through Blackberrys. While public opinion and advocacy shapes public policy, technology also has its limits in delivering constituents' messages to their legislators. It is not as simple as clicking a button--new rules for effective advocacy are taking shape.
During the August 2006 recess, a congressional staffer admitted that the general inbox and constituent response portfolio in her office was filled with thousands of messages. Because of the workload involved and so little staff to handle so many messages, very little of the correspondence could be given consideration. This is not the situation in every office, but it does indicate the stresses of life on Capitol Hill.
So if we have become masters of information-sharing and can send it at lightning speed, are we getting a return on our investment? …