Monday, March 11, 2013

Citizen Participation

The other evening I came across a recording of Larry Arne, president of Hillsdale College, giving a speech, a few weeks after the November election. I always like hearing Larry Arne; he is a combination of calm, folksy, and incidentally extremely well educated. And he has a brilliant way of expressing love for the Constitution. I’m sorry I don’t have a link to the speech; I realized afterward I would have liked to save it. But one of his quotes was from, I think, one of the ancient Greeks: “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” And then he added, “Politics is like that too.”

That’s how I feel about it. I am not particularly interested in the game of politics, but because those who are interested and involved in politics are the ones who make policy that affects my life, I feel obligated to pay enough attention to prevent as much damage as possible.
The question is, how much is enough? I don’t know the answer, but I continue to do what I’m willing to do and feel may have a positive effect.
Cypress Texas Tea Party visit to Rep. Bill Callegari's office
This past Friday a few friends from our local Tea Party group went with me to visit the office of one of our state representatives. We did this during the last Texas legislative session two years ago and found it valuable. This is just one of many ways we regular citizens are trying to have an impact. We have made a list of bills to follow during the legislative session, on subjects we care about: education, voter integrity, taxes, protection against federal encroachment. And we have included a list of basic principles as well. There are literally thousands of bills presented each session. Some are so obscure that it’s pretty near impossible for a regular citizen living a non-political life to become aware of them and judge them. That’s why we have representatives instead of direct democracy. But where we are aware of bill and issues, we do want to let our representatives know where we stand.
Back two years ago I offered to share, at a Tea Party meeting, some information I had on how a bill goes through the legislative process. I got the information from Texas Home School Coalition. They have a monthly day at the legislature where students learn to lobby on issues related to homeschooling and parental rights. Then the students (with parents in the background) divide up for the afternoon and deliver the information to every legislative office. We used to go as homeschoolers—hands down one of the best field trip opportunities ever!
So I was one of the few to have visited legislative offices in Austin, or even locally. After that information day, people in the group said, couldn’t we go visit local offices? And can you arrange that? So that’s how it happened. And I got the assignment again this time.
We have input from various sources for the bills we’re following, but I still feel less informed than I would like. That’s why I added the principles list. This was just written by me without, so far, direct feedback from the entire group, but it’s my impression of what we agree on in our discussions. And, in case you’re not aware, a local Tea Party is just a local group that gets together under that name. We receive no monies from any source. We don’t collect dues, and we don’t owe allegiance or money to any national organization. We use free internet communications, and we meet at a local restaurant that allows us the use of the space without a fee, on the assumption that many of us will buy food while we’re there (a good assumption).
So, again, the list is local, and it is unofficial:
·         We support the US Constitution and conservative principles in the Texas Constitution.
·         We support low taxes and limited government spending and oppose ever having a state income tax.
·         We support handling each issue at the most local authority possible—with individual and family decisions as the default authority.
·         We support asserting 10th Amendment states’ rights against usurpation by federal government.
o   We particularly oppose imposing national health care on the people of Texas.
·         We support parental rights in the education and upbringing of their children, including local control over spending and curriculum in public schools.
·         We do not as a group endorse candidates, but we provide a platform for sharing information so our members can make informed decisions; individual members may endorse, work for, or become candidates. 

We aim for Fridays, near the lunch hour, to make the opportunity open to as many as possible. A representative group of five of us went last Friday. The local off ice staffer, Gracie, was very welcoming, let us take our photo with her. She not only took the materials we brought with us, she took notes of all we said. And I know it is her job to pass along that information to the representative.
Not that many people go to the effort of coming in person. Not everyone even goes so far as to make a phonecall or send an email expressing their opinion. So there’s a way to measure constituent opinion based on who makes these contacts. When I got this information, it was before the anthrax scare, and before email became as standardized as it is now. So email is now the preferred quick opinion expression to representatives (national and state). The offices have programs to sort and store the opinions. It’s assumed that for every email expressing an opinion, probably 10 people have that opinion but haven’t made the contact. So it’s a little like voting for ten people when you are the one to send your opinion. There’s a similar assumption for phonecalls; your opinion for or against will be recorded and considered, even though a phonecall leaves no written record of your reasoning.
It used to be assumed a personally written letter (as opposed to a letter copied word-for-word from multiple members of some organization) was worth about 25 constituent opinions. I’m not sure how that’s measured now, but I do know that letters are troublesome because of the need to scan each delivered item for dangerous substances. So in general mail is not preferred.
As for numbers, an in-person visit is worth about 100 constituent opinions. It may be that visiting the local office when the legislature is meeting in Austin is less powerful than traveling to the capitol, but it’s still important. Driving to Austin would mean even more. Usually citizen lobbyists aren’t the ones to go; special interest groups go, unions and organizations, or their paid lobbyists. It’s their job, and they press for influence. When an individual citizen goes to the effort, the representative is likely to take notice.
I don’t know how much difference we’re making in the long run, but I do believe that, even if we don’t have an interest in politics, politics is interested in us, and we’d better do what we can to be watchful. This is just one of the ways.

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