Friday, May 2, 2008

Congressional Letters

I have a couple of posts I'm working on for this weekend, but in the meantime, Kyle recommended that I repost a comment I left at CFLF.

Anyways, the context of this is as follows: Kyle, justifiably outraged at the collective yawn that occured in the wake of the revelations that President Bush personally approved torture, sent his local (Republican) congresswoman a letter in connection with an ACLU letter-writing campaign. He was shocked when he received a response back, apparently bearing the signature of the congresswoman herself. Then he read the letter, which not surprisingly amounted to a non-responsive response. Then he fact-checked some of the claims in the letter. Somewhat surprisingly, he found that the underlying facts for the claims in the Congresswoman's letter were, uhh, inconsistent at best.

My reply to Kyle's post was as follows:

It’s been about 10 years since I was “working” on Capitol Hill, though I did some stuff on the lobbying side of things during and just after law school. But I can pretty much explain step by step what happened here to provide some context for you (in some ways, this makes this story even worse, in other ways less bad because it’s pretty standard procedure…of course, the fact that it’s standard procedure on both sides of the aisle ought to tell you something about the futility of ever achieving good governance):
1. Sometime in the two years since the watered-down Military Commissions Act passed, and almost certainly well before you sent your letter, some other constituent from your district sent a letter to the Congresswoman about the torture issue. Based on the language of the response you received, I’m guessing that the letter from the prior constituent was written in anger about Bush’s cynical signing statement to circumvent that Act, though I could well be wrong about this.
2. An intern in the Congresswoman’s office opened the prior constituent’s letter, reviewed it, and determined the Legislative Assistant (”LA”) in the office most likely to be responsible for correspondence on the torture issue.
3. This LA (most likely in his/her mid-20’s since Republicans aren’t too concerned about torture and would thus likely assign this issue to a junior LA rather than a senior LA or the Legislative Coordinator) then reviewed his/her file of form letters and determined that none of the existing form letters would even remotely apply to this constituent’s letter.
4. The LA (who was, again, almost certainly in his/her mid-20’s, with no legal background whatsoever) then tried to research the official GOP talking points on this issue; they may have also pulled the Congressional Research Services file on torture and cherry-picked, out of context, the bullet points seemingly most favorable to their boss’ position.
5. Most likely using a template for constituent correspondence where the constituent disagrees with the Congresswoman, the LA then attempted to draft a letter that was both an inoffensive-sounding non-response response to the original constituent letter and generic enough to be used as a reply to future related constituent correspondence. The LA then gave the draft to the LC and maybe the Chief of Staff for a quick once-over, and the letter was then sent out to the constituent, with a staffer signing on behalf of the Congresswoman.
6. The LA saved a copy of the “Congresswoman’s” response on the office hard-drive, probably with a file name along the lines of “Torture- Anti” (ok, maybe not that blatant) or “Presidential Position on Geneva - anti”
7. Several months, and probably over a year later, the Congresswoman’s office received your letter and step 2 was repeated, as was most of step 3.8. This time, though, the LA decided that a relevant form letter did exist as a possible response to your letter. Although the existing letter was not 100% on point to your concerns, it was deemed close enough, especially since the ABC report received so little play and was thus unlikely to generate enough constituent letters to warrant a significant redraft of the existing form letter. This is the letter you received.

This isn’t to say in anyway that the Congresswoman is off the hook for the poorly researched statement of her position on Geneva. Actually, it’s worse: it goes to show the way in which politicians (and believe me, the Dems are just as bad on this stuff) figure out their positions first, and the facts later. In this case, the Congresswoman, like many Republicans, takes the position of “my country and my President, right or wrong.” This position then becomes the position to which the staffers need to reconcile the facts.