What's the US equivalent of British MPs' constituency surgeries?
June 18, 2016 4:57 AM   Subscribe

Every week, a British MP will return to his our her constituency to hold what's known as a surgery. These events allow any constituent to walk in off the street and meet face-to-face with the MP to discuss whatever problem they (the constituent) is experiencing at the time and seek the MP's help in sorting it out. What would be the nearest equivalent in the American system?

Often the problems raised at British MPs' surgeries are small-scale ones, on the level of a blocked drain outside the constituent's house or a local accident black spot. Nonetheless, MPs build their constituency reputations around their ability to get problems like these sorted and many take genuine pride in this weekly grass-roots contact with the people they represent. Only when you reach Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet level does it become acceptable to hand off responsibility for surgeries to your constituency agent so you can concentrate solely on national issues instead.

Surgeries are in the news here in the UK at the moment because Jo Cox, a West Yorkshire MP, has just been murdered by a man who was able to find and attack her at her surgery meeting. There's a great deal of talk here at the moment of MPs needing greater security at their surgeries to prevent further attacks like this, balanced by concerns that too much security would dent people's access to their local MP - a crucial part of the democratic process. Assuming there is is some US equivalent of the surgery system - and given the far greater prevalence of guns over there - how is security managed at the US meetings?
posted by Paul Slade to Law & Government (18 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
(Not an answer to the question, but an addendum - given the greater security threat that MPs are facing, they are increasingly using an appointments system rather than just letting people walk in off the street. The process otherwise remains the same, though. This according to a podcast I was listening to yesterday - The Guardian Politics, I think.)
posted by Grangousier at 5:08 AM on June 18, 2016

My Massachusetts state senator has monthly meetings with his constituents at coffee shops. People just come in and talk. I don't know if this is common, though.

Jo Cox's murder is a terrible tragedy.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 5:13 AM on June 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

If you're talking about members of Congress, there isn't really anything directly equivalent. Constituent services is definitely a thing: if you're having a problem with a government agency, you can contact your congressional representative's local office, and they may help you get it sorted out. I know someone who was being denied military widow's benefits because the Veterans Administration claimed she couldn't prove that she and her husband were ever married, and our local congressman's office got it taken care of so that she now gets her benefits. Typically, you would talk with a staffer, and any actual meeting with the representative would be pre-arranged. I know of local politicians who have regular events to discuss constituents' concerns, and I think they just make their peace with the risks involved, which is something that everyone in the US does on some level.

A few years back, Representative Gabby Giffords was shot and seriously injured at an open meet-your-representative event, and I assume that security has been stepped up since then. I wouldn't be surprised if congresspeople were doing less of that kind of thing since the attack on Giffords, but I know that my local congressman still does constituent meet-and-greets sometimes. There's nothing like a regularly-scheduled weekly surgery, though.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 5:19 AM on June 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

As far as I know there's no standard practice for those types of things in American politics. The types of bread and butter issues a consituent might want to bring up at a surgery --- potholes, bin collection, local schools or whatever --- would most likely be something you'd go to your state legislators about in the US. But the format of the legislature in each state varies --- in some it's a part time gig where the reps would be at home in their consituencies most of the year, in others it's a full time job with a six figure salery and a small staff. In California, each state legislator's district covers about half a million people; in New Hampshire there's a state rep for every ~3,250 residents. Congressional representatives do constituent services stuff too, of course, but for an individual with a problem you'd most likely only go to your congress person if the snag you were trying to deal with was related to the federal governement -- veteren's benefits, the national parks, something like that.
posted by Diablevert at 5:32 AM on June 18, 2016 [5 favorites]

Nothing as regular and as expected as in the UK. Members of the House typically maintain staff, in DC and in their district, to respond to constituent concerns.

Members are frequently back in their districts for long weekends, often long enough to hamper House business. Who gets to meet with them is, of course, a separate matter.

Party discipline and formal organization are considerably less "real" in the US.
posted by justcorbly at 5:47 AM on June 18, 2016

The population of a US House district is about 8x that of a Commons constituency, and many of the governance concerns an English or Welsh MP will address are addressed by state legislators in the US federal system.

However, every US House member has a sophisticated constituent service operation run by staff who are generally very effective at dealing with national government issues -- Social Security, Medicare, military pensions, government procurement contracting etc.
posted by MattD at 6:36 AM on June 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

Pretty sure that constituency sizes are significantly different in the US by a factor of ten, and geographically they can be very bizarre due to gerrymandering, so it's simply not as practical. They do have offices and staff who take care of this kind of thing, and I believe, consider it important.

Or what MattD just said.
posted by idb at 6:38 AM on June 18, 2016

Don Young is the sole US Representative for the entire state of Alaska. Alaska is thousands of miles away from DC and is larger in area than the entire United Kingdom. Some populated areas can only be accessed by ship, in summer; some parts can only be reached by bush planes. It simply wouldn't be practical for Representative Young to do something like this.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:50 AM on June 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

There is no equivalent for this in the US.

In my small town situation you just call someone on the phone (at the local government level) when you want to get something sorted but it's usually a town government thing. You might go to your local selectboard meeting (a monthly meeting where the business of the town is conducted) State representatives are around and available but we have a part-time legislature in my state so they don't even have offices when Congress isn't in session. However national level people to hire teams of staffers to do "constituent services" which is basically when you need something at the federal level handled (usually stuff with social security, disability benefits, veterans stuff). They also are usually around and doing "Meet Rep Peter Welch at this coffee shop at 7 am next week!" sorts of things where they speak with their constituents directly.

Larger cities often have a phone line that you can call to get help dealing with potholes or other "civic" stuff (311) but it's usually getting someone from the relevant agency, not speaking to an elected rep directly.
posted by jessamyn at 6:53 AM on June 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

Fascinatingly, there's a sample constituent services manual for US congressional offices that is available online. A retiring congressman made it available for his colleagues, and then a current congressman updated it and has made it available to his colleagues and the public. It gives you a sense of the kind of constituent services work that congressional representatives do. My sense is that a lot of it is military benefits and immigration stuff.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:54 AM on June 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

I had a partner who used to work for constituent services for Senator Jeffords in Vermont. For Congresspeople with big population areas, they often have a whole team of people, often a lot of law students and people in government stuff at a college level and then higher level career government staffers who sort of run the team of admins to push this stuff along. Some of them work in the home state, some of them work in DC. There are usually a few offices. Senator Leahy has one in the state capitol and one in Burlington. Rep Welch has one in Burlington and one in DC only. This is when you need to get a thing done, whether it's arranging a visit to the White House or working out disability benefits. It's done on a case manager basis a lot of times, so you work with them to resolve your problem and a lot of times these problems can get resolved a lot better with a call from Senator Soandso's office than a random citizen's attempts. They also do things like answer the phones and whatnot, so a lot of people think constituent services are just who you talk with when you want to express your appreciation or displeasure about a political issue.

The big thing though is that these people are aligned with the values of the elected rep but they are also designed to keep you from getting anywhere near the elected rep (again this is at the national level, my local people I will see in the supermarket) I would often speak with my partner about what I would do if I had an opinion on a social issue that I needed to get to the Senator (i.e. not just register it as a checkmark in a yeah/nay column on a clipboard) and his basic response was that you pretty much couldn't. Which makes a certain amount of sense since they have a lot more work than just my esoteric fringe argument about a thing, but the size of the country/population (and the weird way representative democracy works) generally dictates that you're not guaranteed direct access to your rep unless you go visit them in Washington DC or in their offices which is out of the reach of a lot of Americans.

So to your direct question about security, they manage that by mostly not being personally accessible unless they are in DC in which case the Congressional security stuff kicks in.
posted by jessamyn at 7:10 AM on June 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

I have never seen anyone higher than a city council member do this.

I think part of it is that most Americans have pretty limited interaction with the federal government, outside paying taxes, immigration, social security, and being in the military. You can easily live your entire life and never have to talk to a federal administrator. Local governments control almost everything that actually matters day-to-day.
posted by miyabo at 8:46 AM on June 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

This really varies by state. Delaware is very small and very close to D.C., so our Senators and representative are out and about a lot. You see them at every fair and festival and they take the regular train to and from D.C. They do usually have someone with them at public events who I guess is security but it is not usually a lot of security. Senator Roth used to just wander around public events with his dogs.

I have never contacted their local offices but I don't think it is that hard to meet with personally.
posted by interplanetjanet at 8:50 AM on June 18, 2016

Our congressmember likes to boast about getting out in the district to meet people, but she usually does so in a town meeting format that lets her explain what her positions are and why people who disagree with her are wrong. She calls them "listening tours" but her constituents do most of the listening.
posted by Flexagon at 9:17 AM on June 18, 2016

There's nothing directly comparable. Certain states have more of an "open meetings" culture, others don't.

The best way to have face-to-face meetings with anyone elected to a higher level than city / county government is to be part of an organisation that speaks for a large group of people with a common interest. (And bring a campaign donation.) Scale matches scale.
posted by holgate at 9:22 AM on June 18, 2016

Nthing that there is no direct counterpart, though getting a smidge of face time with a Representative is probably less difficult than many/most people think; they're at lots of public-ish events. Or just figure out what flights you'd take from DC in late afternoon or evening to get home, and stalk them at the airport.* It's unlikely to be organized in any meaningful way, though.

Unless things have changed recently, the only security you'd typically find is whatever security the building or event would have anyway. This can range from quite strict (federal office buildings) to none whatsoever at many events and, probably, lots of district offices, which are usually in commercial office buildings.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:40 AM on June 18, 2016

It gives you a sense of the kind of constituent services work that congressional representatives do. My sense is that a lot of it is military benefits and immigration stuff.

We used constituent services to sort out a problem with HUD, and it was super duper helpful. Something we'd been fighting with for two years took less than a week to get sorted once the congressional office was involved. My sense is that they handle all kind of issues -- really anything involving a federal agency.

Also, I pretty regularly see one of my state's four DC-level elected officials (I won't say which one) in the local supermarket, but that's probably partly a function of Maine being such a small state.
posted by anastasiav at 10:08 AM on June 18, 2016

Often the problems raised at British MPs' surgeries are small-scale ones, on the level of a blocked drain outside the constituent's house or a local accident black spot

That's neat that your MP's deal with this. For all the areas I've ever lived in, these things would be covered by your local city/town government. In fact, you wouldn't bug a city councilor about this unless it was an epic and consistent problem (potholes everywhere!!!) - you would just call the city and alert them to the issues and they would fix it (or not). For local accident black spots, again you would call the city first to complain and then if not resolved, you would go to your city councilor who would make a big stink about it for you. You would never contact a senator about this, and if you did, people would assume you were a wacko.

As for senators or even state reps - you can make appointments to meet with them and you can call/email them. Typically you don't get a response directly from them for a call/email, but rather an aide - but my understanding is that the aides basically do everything, so that's whose attention you want anyway.
posted by Toddles at 3:38 PM on June 18, 2016

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