Wisconsin GOP Senator Ron Johnson has been avoiding his constituents lately. Last week, a group of constituents even held a town hall about health care without him, after he declined to attend. (He held a telephone town hall instead).
Now one of Johnson’s constituents has received a cease-and-desist letter from the senator’s office, demanding that he stop calling the senator and stop trying to meet with his staff. The letter to Earl Good of Milwaukee instructs him to only contact the office in writing from now on.
Good is a Vietnam veteran and attentive constituent who, in an interview with his local CBS station, acknowledged that he has been very persistent in his attempts to get through to the office and talk to the senator’s staff about issues that concern him, including the possible privatization of the Veterans Administration.
He acknowledged that he once called 83 times before someone picked up the phone.
“The day before was 40 to get through. The day before that was eight. The day before that was 29, so they’re very aware of who I am by my cell phone number,” he told CBS 58.
He gave the letter — simply signed by “Staff” — to the local activist group Citizens Action of Wisconsin, which posted it on its website:
“Constituents are always welcome and encouraged to contact our office with their concerns, regardless of political viewpoint. Unfortunately, very infrequently a pattern of inappropriate behavior emerges that crosses the bounds of decency and requires action to ensure the well being of visitors to the office and staff,” a spokesperson for Johnson told CBS 58.
Daniel Schumann, a former congressional staffer who works on federal government transparency at Demand Progress, said he has never heard of such an action being taken by a congressional office.
“It’s extroardinarily unusual to say the least,” he told The Intercept. “I mean if they were doing things that were illegal or otherwise really inappropriate, then maybe there could be grounds for doing something like that — if they were threatening him or his office staff. But while the member office is under no obligation to listen to any communications, they can’t tell people that they can’t communicate with their elected official.”
Schumann said that congressional offices typically refer to persistent constituent callers as “frequent flyers,” and that there are other less punitive ways to get them to reduce the call volume while still meaningfully taking their input.
“You try to build a rapport with the caller,” Schumann advised. “You try to say, ‘You know what? You call frequently. It’s good. The members wants to hear from you. But let’s help consolidate these communications. So instead of calling a number of times with different issues, let’s set aside once a day or once a week where we’ll go through the issues you have and we’ll talk about it.'”
Brad Fitch, a long-time Capitol Hill staffer who is president of the Congressional Management Foundation, which works on Congressional-constituent interaction, said he is sympathetic to staffers who are faced with large call volumes from irate constituents.
“Normally congressional offices are subject to — and individual staff members are subject to — an unbelievable amount of berating that no other industry in the world gets,” he said.
But there are more constructive ways to deal with insistent constituents, as long as they’re not doing anything illegal. For instance, he said, “You have a special voice mail box set up that the person can vent for a certain amount of time, you’re allowing the individual to communicate.”
And the bar is pretty high for what’s illegal in constitutent-to-Congress communications. In 2006, a woman in Colorado left a package full of dog feces in the mailbox of an office of Republican Rep. Marilyn Musgrave. She was charged with using a noxious substance — but her lawyers argued that she had a First Amendment right, and that it was protected speech. She was found not guilty.
One of her defense attorneys told reporters: “If you can’t take a little crap, you shouldn’t be in Congress.”