Response Requested

The story of one constituent, two members of Congress, many letters and lots of frustration

A June letter about trees began Brian McCarthy's frustrating saga with Tucson's congressional offices. That saga recently ended with another letter—but McCarthy suffered through a lot of frustration in the interim.

Three months ago, my friend McCarthy read an Associated Press article about an Army Corps of Engineers proposal. The story reported the Corps wanted all trees growing near levees in the United States removed for public-safety reasons.

McCarthy didn't like that idea, and on June 11, he wrote Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, which oversees the Corps. Five days later, he also contacted his own representative, Raúl Grijalva.

He didn't receive a response from either office after about three weeks, so McCarthy wrote again. Another 10 days later, he sent a third letter to both representatives, informing Giffords: "Your failure to respond to my previous letters has shown me that further correspondence on this subject would be a waste of my time and postage."

Both offices cited similar explanations for the lack of a response to McCarthy: A flood of input from constituents.

Natalie Luna, a press aide to Grijalva, says the office receives between 500 and 700 e-mails, 300 faxes, and 100 letters daily, as well as numerous phone calls—a volume which has been on the rise thanks to the national health-care debate.

"Honestly, we've been overwhelmed. ... It's the heaviest since the congressman has been in office. ... In late July and the first two weeks of August, it was a firestorm," she says.

C.J. Karamargin, Giffords' communications director, indicates their office typically handles about 13,000 letters, faxes, phone calls and e-mails a month. But "for June and July with the energy bill, it totaled 39,000, and then came health care. The weekly average for contacts went from 3,100 to 4,700."

Ron Barber, Giffords' district director, adds: "We were scrambling to keep up, and regret (what happened) with Mr. McCarthy."

Another explanation offered for the lack of response to McCarthy is the number of staff people—22—that each congressional representative is allowed.

"The people doing the responses," Barber says, "that isn't their only job." He adds that the health-care forums Giffords held took up a considerable amount of staff time.

"I'm not trying to whine," Barber says, "but given the number of contacts, and even though we're trying to get better, there's only so much we can do."

On July 27, Giffords finally wrote back. She informed McCarthy that she had forwarded his letter to Grijalva's office, since McCarthy lives in Grijalva's district.

This practice, "congressional courtesy," calls for a person's own representative to respond to a constituent, even if correspondence is sent to another member of Congress.

"The people of the district hired their representative," Karamargin explains, "so she must answer to them." He suggests people check their voter registration card, or log onto the Pima County Recorder's Web site, to check which district they live in.

"If it was opened up to committee issues," Barber says of the courtesy policy, "the volume would be unmanageable, and the contacts would come from all over the country."

After receiving Giffords' letter, McCarthy replied, informing her that he had already written Grijalva. Since he didn't live in Giffords' district, he also requested the return of a small campaign contribution he and his wife had sent her, a request which was complied with late last week.

Meanwhile, McCarthy still had not heard anything from Grijalva after sending three letters. In his third communication, dated July 24, he also raised another issue: whether Grijalva would ever even see his letter.

Both Luna and Barber indicate that the correspondence each office receives is condensed into a regular report for review by the congressperson.

Extremely frustrated with the lack of attention, McCarthy fired off an irate fourth letter to Grijalva on Aug. 7.

"He was asking for very specific information," Luna points out about McCarthy's request. "It takes time to contact the Corps." Luna also says that Grijalva's office strives to have a response to a constituent within 10 days, but needs more time with a complicated issue like McCarthy's.

"If more than enough time has passed," she says, "they should contact me directly. We want to help. That's our job."

About 10 weeks after McCarthy's original letter, Grijalva's response was finally sent on Aug. 28. The two-page letter goes into detail about the tree cutting issue, correcting some statements made in the AP article.

Near its conclusion, Grijalva's message states: "I will work with colleagues ... to ensure that public safety needs are met while upholding a high standard for maintaining a healthy environment around levees."

McCarthy says he now has a better understanding about why things happened the way they did.

"Perhaps things need to be revised so the congressional offices have more people to handle the workload," he suggests.

"I still think six weeks is too long to get a letter out which says, 'You shouldn't have written me,'" he says about his communication from Giffords.

While pleased with the response he finally got from Grijalva, McCarthy remains unhappy that it took 2 1/2 months to prepare.

At the same time, McCarthy intends to send Giffords another campaign contribution (which he won't ask to be returned). He says he regrets some of the things he wrote in his letters.

"I want to write another letter (to both elected officials)," McCarthy says, "which is somewhat apologetic."