Constituent Services: Your Congressional Office Can Do WHAT?!
Turns out, Congressional offices can actually do some really helpful things for you. Once you know what cool things they can provide, you might be calling their offices a little more frequently. Read on…
I’m going to let you in on a little secret… those Congressional offices can be really useful to you. Yes, you.
No matter who you voted for, or whether you voted at all, Congress can actually be helpful. Or at least their staff can be.
My sister, Andrea, and I both have vastly different experiences working in Congressional offices. She worked for a senator in his main Washington, D.C. office on the press side of things in a really stately looking congressional building just steps away from the Capitol.
I, however, worked in a district office for a member of the House. We were located in a little office building just up the street from an outdoor shopping center in Richmond, Virginia. Few people even knew we existed.
Unlike the Washington, D.C. offices, who focus on the legislative and press side of things, the main focus of a district office, though less glamorous, is equally as important: constituent services, i.e. serving YOU.
Chances are, there’s a district congressional office near you, too. And if you need help with something related to the federal government, want tickets or tours to something in D.C., it’s helpful to know what these offices can do for you. You never know when it might come in handy. Plus, you might be glad you’re in on these secrets (which, turns out, aren’t secret, but public information. Now you know).
Here are a few things they can do for you that you may not know about:
- Federal Agency Help: Need help with a federal agency? For example, are you traveling internationally soon and your passport still hasn’t arrived and you’re freaking out? A congressional staffer can assist you–just make sure to give them advance notice. Calling the night before your trip isn’t realistic. Are you having trouble receiving Social Security benefits? Issues with identity theft? Trouble getting your veterans benefits? Immigration issues? These are all federal issues that involve a federal agency. Your congressman’s office can help. Each of those federal agencies has a congressional liaison office designed just for working with your Congressman’s office. So what do you need to do? Just call your congressman’s district office and ask to speak with the caseworker in charge of whatever federal agency you need assistance with. They can’t guarantee a favorable outcome but if they’re doing their job they should at least be able to get you some answers a whole lot quicker than you could on your own.
- Congratulatory Letters: Is your son receiving his Eagle Scout? Your grandmother turning 100? Perhaps your father is retiring? Think a letter from your congressman will make an occasion extra special? Call or write a letter to your congressional office requesting a letter. Make sure you make the request several weeks in advance to make sure it gets to the intended recipient on time.
- Federal Grants: Do you have a small business that could benefit from a federal grant? There’s also a caseworker in each district office trained to help walk you through the process.
- Inauguration Tickets: Don’t worry, it’s not all boring. There are some cool things a Congressman’s office can do for you, too. Did you see all those thousands of people at the Capitol for the latest Inauguration? How did they get tickets? Aside from the political VIPS in attendance, the majority of them called their congressional office and got on a list. If you’re serious about really wanting to go, you should probably call several months in advance. When President Obama became the official Democratic nominee for president back in 2008, we had people calling months in advance, even before he had won, to get on a waiting list for tickets.
- Tours in Washington, D.C.: Are you planning a trip to Washington, D.C. and would like to tour the White House or the U.S. Capitol? I highly recommend visiting both places, but you need to plan ahead and call in advance. The process for obtaining White House tour tickets changes with each Administration. In most cases, you need to plan months in advance though. Tours to the U.S. Capitol are less strict but still fill up during tourist season and holiday weekends, so definitely plan ahead. Each office may have access to more specialized “VIP” type tours depending on which committees or leadership positions your Congressman is on. If you’re really feeling adventurous, ask your Congressman’s office about a Capitol “Dome Tour.” They’re hard to get (in some cases the Congressman or Senator has to personally escort you), but they’re well worth being persistent about. They’re amazing and offer one of the best views in D.C.
- Visit to House and Senate galleries: Want to view Congress in action? Make a request through your congressional office. Sure you can watch it on C-SPAN, but trust me, seeing it all in person is a pretty cool thing.
- American Flag Requests: Do you need a U.S. flag for a boy scout or other civic ceremony or even just for a unique gift to someone? For relatively inexpensively, you can get a flag from your Congressman’s office and, to make it extra special, you can even request that it be flown over the U.S. Capitol on a specific date. It will arrive with a certificate stating just that. Plan several weeks ahead of time when placing a request.
- Special Appearances: For special events, you can request an appearance by your congressman. Some congressman go crazy for Eagle Scout ceremonies and will do everything they can to be in attendance for them. Others, are less willing to attend smaller events, but if it’s something important, call the district office and ask to speak with the district director.
- Military Academy/Congressional Page: Is your son or daughter interested in attending a military academy or being a participant in the U.S. Page program? Those nominations need to come directly from your Congressman. I’ll give you a little piece of advice. The Congressman and his staff are a lot more apt to push for a nomination of someone they have direct ties to or have been super impressed by. Arrange a meeting with the Congressman well beforehand and let them get to know you. A face with a name is so much more helpful. Get the District Director or Chief of Staff’s business card and once you’ve met them, keep calling (not annoyingly so) or writing to let them know you’re still interested. These positions are so competitive–don’t let them forget you!
- Volunteer/Intern: Do you have a son or daughter interested in some civic experience? Do they need to ramp up their resume before college or log in some volunteer hours? Call your local congressional office. No doubt they have something for you to do. For more official experience, college students can apply for internships. If your son/daughter is home for the summer, they can work out of the district office. If they’re feeling really gung-ho, they can work in the Washington, D.C. office for a semester (highly recommended to get the whole experience). For the best chance of being accepted, apply for the fall or winter semester when applications are slim. Just call your local office and ask for more information. Congressional offices provide exceptional contacts and resources and you never know when internships can lead to jobs.
Keep in mind that there is a difference between federal, state, and local issues. We got more phone calls on any given day than I can count from constituents who had no awareness that there is a distinction. We got calls related to the DMV (state issue), school districts (state or city specific), and even calls from constituents in other congressional districts who had no idea who their congressman was. You can read more about our tips for contacting your congressman and for finding out who your congressman is here.
In addition, both your senators and your representative in the House can help you with these issues. It’s up to you who you choose to call. Unless you live in an unusually small congressional district, like South Dakota, where there is only one representative in the entire House, I would usually recommend calling your own member of Congress, as they have fewer constituents and more time to devote to their casework than do the Senators staff whose constituents make up the entire state (though their staff is much larger).
If you have any questions on whether an issue you’re concerned about is federal, state, or local, please don’t hesitate to contact us! We are happy to help point you in the right direction.
And those helpful services listed up there . . . you really should utilize them. They might make you appreciate who you elect to office a little more.
Former White House and Capitol Hill staffer, wife, and mom.