Legislative Correspondence Management Practices: Congressional Offices and the Treatment of Constituent Opinion
Abernathy, Claire Elizabeth
Studies of representation have shown that, generally, Representatives and Senators are responsive to constituent opinion. However, research focused on the policy congruence of elected officials has lacked attention to the important intermediate step of how members of Congress learn about district views. What practices do congressional offices engage in to develop their understanding of constituent opinion? Using data from an original survey of congressional staff from 107 House offices, my dissertation explores how congressional offices process information about constituent opinion, focusing, in particular, on how Representatives and their staffs use constituent correspondence to inform their views of district interests. The dissertation provides the first systematic account of how constituent letters, emails, phone calls, faxes, and social media contacts are treated in congressional offices. I find that offices have different policies for which types of constituent correspondence they will record in their contact databases, and how they will summarize and communicate the content of district correspondence to others in the office. In the dissertation, I test several explanations for this observed variation across offices, and I explore how the correspondence practices that offices adopt impact Representatives’ legislative behavior. While office decisions about how to treat constituent correspondence do not seem to relate to Representatives’ abilities to accurately assess constituent opinion or to respond to constituent preferences in their roll-call voting, the correspondence management practices that offices adopt do relate to their success in advancing important legislative initiatives through Congress. Offices that take advantage of the information that correspondence offers are more likely to see their policy proposals move further through the legislative process. By concentrating on how Representatives come to understand the policy preferences of their constituents, my dissertation elaborates on how the representative-district relationship functions and assesses how meaningful a role constituency views play in congressional behavior.