One of the most patriotic actions a United States citizen can take is to get on an airplane from their home state and visit their Congress people and Senators in Washington DC at their offices. So a few months ago, I began trying to make arrangements for visits to Wisconsin’s Congress people and Senators for Wisconsin constituents attending the ACLU national membership conference for Lobby Day Tuesday, October 17, 2006 (yesterday).
All the elected officials we planned on visiting (not including Petri and Green) were faxed and called numerous times until visits were scheduled. Both Paul Ryan and Jim Sensenbrenner’s offices refused to return calls (after the Rolling Stone article-who's surprised...), promised to check and call back. When we tried to call again, we always had to start from the beginning because they had no record of our previous attempts.
All four Democrats in the House and both Senators eventually scheduled visit times for their constituents. Congressmen Sensenbrenner and Ryan did not.
I attended three meetings total.
The first was yesterday morning and involved the staff members from both Senator Kohl and Senator Feingold’s offices graciously offering to meet us together in Senator Feingold’s offices. The Wisconsin delegation to the membership conference was 38 strong including 22 students (one of them my own 15 year old daughter) from Wisconsin area high schools and universities. We all piled into the office in a nice conference room where the staff members listened, laughed and graciously answered questions from students and adults until we couldn’t think of anymore to ask (with 38 people that was a good long meeting…LOL).
It was raining and Capitol Police were not very accommodating about the shuttle bus idea, so we all walked the 3-4 blocks in the pouring rain from the Hart Senate Office building to the Longworth House Office Building to visit the Congress people from Wisconsin.
I attended two House meetings next.
As a chaperone for the students who mostly lived in the city of Milwaukee and attended MPS or UW-Milwaukee, I attended the pre-scheduled meeting with Gwen Moore first. A brilliant young African American staff member led the 22 students and staff into the Congresswoman’s personal office and led a lively and informative conversation with the students on government, policy, and the inner workings of a Congressperson’s job as well as her job. She told them about internships and various opportunities to participate in their government from a local level to an official capacity and the students were comfortable, and excited to have had the experience. Staffers even offered to set up White House and behind the scenes Congressional tours on our next student trip to DC! These two meetings truly made me proud to be an American!
I had one more stop our journey though. Although my personal congressman Sensenbrenner’s office had blown us off for a personal visit by just flat out ignoring our multiple requests, I had my 15 year old daughter and another of our students who was 19 years old (voting age) who really wanted to visit their own Congressperson or a staff member.
So, the three of us went over (again in the rain) to the Rayburn Congresssional Office building to try to see if we could at least find a staffer who would meet with us on the spot and listen to our ideas for 5 minutes.
A Congressional staff couldn’t be so busy with Congress out of session for the next few weeks to give us 5 minutes after we traveled all the way from Wisconsin, could they?
We walked into Congressman F. Jim Sensenbrenner’s office at about 11:45 am and explained as nicely as we could the situation. We explained that we had tried to get an official appointment for months, but that staff had neglected to return our calls. Then, we asked the young man at the desk if he could find a staffer to speak with us since we were constituents who had come all the way to DC from Wisconsin, and part of the reason was for the young women with me to learn more about their government.
I also explained that we were with a large nationwide group of people who were all visiting their Congresspeople and/or staff members and that although we were aware of the differences we had with our particular Congressman on many issues, we actually wanted to thank him for the work he did in championing the Voting Rights Act last summer. We offered that we knew we had to agree to disagree on many issues, but wanted to ask him to again take a courageous stand for civil rights and support legislation in the Senate designed to end racial profiling by spearheading the effort in the House.
The young man at the desk didn’t check any schedules. He didn’t pick up a phone. He didn’t even ask any of his colleagues if they had the time. He just looked me in the eye and said, “We don’t do that out of this office. You’ll have to go down to the Judiciary Committee office and ask them if they can help you."
Then, honestly not knowing the answer to the question and expecting the answer to be “no” since it is three weeks before a very tight election, I asked, “Is the Congressman here?”. He immediately and fervently said “Yes! He’s here.” Then he looked over at the Congressman’s office door, hesitated for a minute and said, “I mean, he’s out to lunch.” I took him at his word on that, but it was pretty sketchy...
I was surprised he was in town, but then later in the day realized that Bush had signed the Military Commissions Act earlier that morning. Sure enough, when I watched the news later that night, Sensenbrenner was front and center parading the fact that he was responsible for eliminating American’s rights the access court system (the Act gives the President sole authority to suspend Habeas Corpus an 800 year old law, google it).
So, the young man then gives us directions to the Judiciary Committee office on another floor and refuses to take our information (a brochure and my business card with my home address), he said, “I don’t need that stuff.”
The next office we went to was pretty much the same drill with one exception. The young woman at the desk DID make a phone call and DID find someone for us to meet with immediately…it just wasn’t anyone in her office. She did take my card and the brochure after she gave it back to me once saying, “I don’t need that.” She sent us to the Ford Building (remember it was raining) a few blocks away.
So we walk through the rain to the Ford Building (we were directed out of Rayburn to a subbasement smelly garbage exit of the Rayburn building – a worker looked at us like we were aliens down there. Although it was probably the most direct exit, I also had flashbacks of being the only kid not allowed to use the front door at some of my friends homes when I was a kid).
There the three of us finally get to meet with someone who works at least indirectly with our Congressman. Her name was Kim, she worked on the Subcommittee of the Judiciary on the Constitution and she was actually quite wonderful. We started out by agreeing to disagree on Immigration and NSA Spying to move the conversation to places were we may be able to find common ground. She had personally done the legal research for the Voting Rights Act and so was happy for our praise. We discussed the potential for the End Racial Profiling Act (ERPA) and although she readily admitted that she doesn’t set agendas, the FIRST office we were in did, should they decide to work on it, she would be the one to work on this legislation.
She asked why we were meeting with her instead of staffers in his office and we told her the whole story above. She apologized and admitted that it wasn’t the best way to treat constituents and that although she did not personally have any control over it, she would pass the story back up the chain. She graciously told the young women with me about how she got her position, what she did on a daily basis and answered all their questions. She was polite, friendly and courteous, she just wasn’t anyone who could do anything to pass on the reason were had come to our Congressman's office. We thanked her for her time, she again apologized that the young people had to see this side of their government and nicely we parted ways.
The young women and I left and as we walked away in the now lighter rain, my 15 year old daughter turned to me and said, “Mom, why did our Congressman blow us off?”
Before I could answer the other young woman who will vote for her first time in a major election turned to me and said, “Yeah why?”
I turned to her and putting on my best oh well face said, “Well, the staff was young and cocky and we had interrupted their conversation. They didn’t think we were important, so they just tried to get us away from them as soon as they could. Remember that experience when you are standing in the voting booth trying to decide who’s name to mark, and tell your friends about how that made you feel as a US citizen. Compare that to the other experiences you had today and make your decision on how you want your representatives to treat you. I know I will…”
More on the Conference to follow in the next few days...