A Disaster of Misunderstanding: Constituent Service is at the Core of Governance

Kristin Nicholson | March 2, 2021

Ten days ago, his state reeling from extreme cold and widespread power outages, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) made news in a most unfortunate way. As word spread that he had jetted off to tropical Cancun with his family, Congress-watchers, Texans, and most sentient humans were left aghast that an experienced politician would bail on his constituents as they were freezing in the dark. Initial reactions focused largely on the optics of the bafflingly ill-timed Cruz family vacation. Some, however, pushed back on the notion that there was really anything Senator Cruz could do at home and shrugged off the trip as perhaps misguided but ultimately harmless – in other words, it’s not like he can turn the power back on.

Comments like these were a bat signal to current and former congressional staffers, who understand there is, in fact, a great deal members of Congress can do when an emergency hits home. Far beyond performative gestures like simply being nearby or stopping by an aid center, most staffers will tell you that members and staff never work harder than when disaster strikes their district, state or region. The comments also reflected a deep misunderstanding of a member’s larger role; constituent service is at the heart of governance itself.

Members can help in an emergency 

For starters, of course, it’s the right thing to do. This is both because members are engaged in politics (and thus have an interest in looking like they’re helping people) and because they are engaged in public service (and thus have an interest in actually helping people). More than that, it is one of the times they can be most effective as representatives, and achieve results their constituents are most likely to notice, feel, and remember.

During an emergency, members of Congress are uniquely situated to be a vital link between local people, organizations and governments, and federal agencies and officials. It’s the kind of role they play every day, but on a much larger and more urgent scale. They can request federal disaster declarations; ensure national leaders understand local impacts and needs; coordinate communication between federal, state and local governments; and quickly share critical information with constituents. Members and their caseworkers also play a key role in helping local individuals and organizations navigate the bureaucratic maze to access federal services and resources. And they are a valuable source of feedback to federal agencies about what’s working well, what’s not, and where gaps remain. Even after the worst is over, they can prompt congressional hearings or investigations, reallocate funding to better respond in the future, and pass legislation.

Emergencies and disasters also tend to foster bipartisan response (at least temporarily), and members understand there is power in numbers. Even a localized disaster will typically see at least one representative and two senators joining forces. Issues that affect an entire state or region might spur much larger delegations to work together. Yes, some members might fight over credit or try to edge others out, but generally these are team efforts and partisan or other tensions get set aside. Especially for a more junior representative (and particularly one in the minority party), teaming up with Senators, more senior colleagues, and/or majority members can enable them to achieve results they never could on their own.

As a longtime former Chief of Staff, I’ve observed all of these behaviors and strategies.  Sometimes the challenges are relatively small, like local flooding or a bad snowstorm. Sometimes they’re large and complicated, like the ongoing pandemic response. But when constituents are in trouble, I’ve seen members and staff move heaven and earth, as they did after the horrific Station Nightclub Fire hit Rhode Island. The congressional delegation helped to coordinate information, attended funerals, and secured funding for first responders. Staff became experts in fire codes and sprinkler incentives, wrote legislation, and built coalitions of outside advocates. Nearly two decades later, the tragedy still informs the work of those offices.

Constituent service is a core aspect of representation

Although emergencies tend to generate the most visible responses, they are part of the core representational link between members and their constituents. After all, a member’s understanding of their constituency informs how they pursue their goals of re-election, power within Congress, and policy. Members seek out committee assignments based on constituent needs, and the debates they choose to join on the House or Senate floor frequently reflect local priorities.

We’ve seen more recent developments, too. In an era when opportunities to legislate are vanishingly small for the rank-and-file, constituent casework is where individual members can have the most control over their work and the biggest impact on their districts. In a gridlocked environment dominated by party leadership, they aren’t passing bills, they can barely offer amendments, they don’t have much say over what ends up in funding bills, and they may not have seniority or sit on powerful committees. But any member can prioritize constituent service, and any member can build a staff that is extremely good at it.

Better yet, good constituent service – whether simply responding promptly to the mail or helping a small business access federal loans – does not go unnoticed. When a member truly listens to a constituent, or a staffer helps resolve a nagging issue, those constituents notice, they remember, and they spread the word.  The average voter has no idea whether their representative supported the last appropriations bill, but you can be certain they remember when she helped get their Social Security benefits fixed, and they’ve told everyone down at the senior center about it too.

So no, Senator Cruz could not have turned the power back on in Texas, and he probably didn’t cause any meaningful delay or damage to anything but his reputation. But even Cruz himself seems to agree that he stepped on what should have been a critical moment for a member of Congress to advocate, coordinate, listen, and inform. His constituents will surely remember that for a long time, and apparently his colleagues aren’t quite ready to let him forget it either.


Kristin Nicholson is the Director of the Government Affairs Institute

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