Constituent Services Give Voters Something To Remember If played just right, members of Congress can see a political payoff from simply doing their jobs and helping out voters who elected them. It's one reason incumbents fare well come Election Day.
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Constituent Services Give Voters Something To Remember

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Constituent Services Give Voters Something To Remember

Constituent Services Give Voters Something To Remember

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Even in the bleakest of times, incumbent lawmakers almost always gets reelected, and here's one reason why. They have a built-in advantage in the form of constituent services. If members of Congress play their cards just right, they can see a political payoff from simply doing their jobs of helping out the voters who elected them. NPR's Juana Summers has gathered some examples.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: States have been flooded for months with campaign ads. And with so many politicians going negative, sentimental ads like these tend to stand out.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I reached out to Senator McConnell and he took up my cause personally.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Kay Hagan getting involved was a turning point.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I called my Senator. I called Pat Roberts.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Al Franken heard about my story and he was so genuine in his concern.

SUMMERS: Lawmakers love turning to their constituents to prove that they're getting things done for the little guy. When politicians want to show they're worth their weight, who better to make the case than a real, live voter?

Here's Brad Fitch. He heads up the Congressional Management Foundation, a nonprofit that advises members on how to run their offices.

BRAD FITCH: These are politicians. They love being loved. And so the idea that you can call up, say, the grandson of a World War II veteran and say, guess what - I got the Defense Department to reissue those medals he got in World War II - boy, those are the moments worth living for if you're a public servant.

SUMMERS: Plus, Congress isn't getting all that much done these days. Little legislation passes, and with the ban on earmarks, there's no pork to deliver. And that leaves little to brag about other than what they're doing for their constituents at home. So they're turning to testimonials, whether it's a story of a veteran getting his benefits...

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Within a month, he had his pension back. Cheri Bustos cares about veterans.

SUMMERS: ...Or passing a bill that prioritizes research on a medical condition.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: We actually approached Congressman Gibson and said this is a problem that is bigger than us, and it's bigger than the medical community.

SUMMERS: And even in the years with a jam-packed legislative calendar, constituent services are a big part of lawmakers' jobs. Again, here's Brad Fitch.

FITCH: The idea of becoming an ombudsman for citizens and members of Congress performing this role evolved in the 1960s and '70s when Congressional offices started to grow. Members of Congress wanted to provide more services to constituents so they increased their staff size from maybe five - six - seven people to now a cap of 18 full-time staff members in the House of Representatives.

SUMMERS: And on average about one third of those staffers are diving into casework on a day-to-day basis.

(TELEPHONE RINGING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Office of Congressman David Price.

SUMMERS: Congressman David Price, a North Carolina Democrat, says his office handles as many as 100 requests each month for casework. He and his staff try to get to all of them.

CONGRESSMAN DAVID PRICE: There's a full range of dealings that people have with the federal government that are prone sometimes to red tape or to errors. And we're the ones who serve as the ombudsman, as they call it in some of the European countries. We're the ones that people come to when they need something straightened out with the bureaucracy, and often we're able to help.

SUMMERS: The casework that staffers tackle runs the gamut from headaches over Social Security checks, IRS problems, veterans' benefits and mortgage issues. These days immigration issues are among the biggest problems. But what about the politics? I asked Price how much that motivates him and other lawmakers. He says it does for some, but he has no doubt that constituents remember what their lawmaker does for them.

PRICE: Very few people will remember a vote I took 10 - 15 years ago, or, for that matter, whether I sponsored a bill. But they sure are going to remember if we helped them adopt a child.

SUMMERS: That's true for the individual voter, but UCSD's Gary Jacobson says the idea that incumbents can protect themselves by touting constituent services may be a bit dated, and here's why. Jacobson says the electorate is more polarized today than ever.

GARY JACOBSON: There are just fewer voters who are willing to cross party lines to support an incumbent, no matter what they've done for the district.

SUMMERS: And doing good without political gain - who does that anymore? Juana Summers, NPR News, Washington.

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