Calling your senators about the Farm Bill can have unexpected results

From our previous contributor Janet Majure, who lives in Kansas and blogs regularly at

A funny thing happened when I called my senators this week to ask their support of the Dorgan-Grassley Amendment, which would "put a hard cap of $250,000 on commodity payments, close loopholes, and shift the savings to rural development, beginning and minority farmer, conservation, nutrition, and anti-hunger programs," according to the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

Thanks to an alert from the Kansas Rural Center, I called the offices of Sen. Pat Roberts and Sen. Sam Brownback and asked by name for the staff member who follows ag policy.

The Roberts receptionist found that the staff member was unavailable, asked if I’d like his voicemail (yes, please), and inquired as to whom I was "with." When I said I was a constituent, she had a distinctly disappointed tone when she said, simply, "Oh," that sounded more like "Oh, hell, I should have asked before offering voicemail," or "Oh, great, another one of those people."

Anyway, I left my message, with name and phone number, asking the senator’s support of the amendment and saying I’d be interested to know the senator’s stance.

Then, I called Brownback’s office. To those who have not been paying close attention, Senator Brownback was until recently a Republican candidate for president and the most "socially conservative" of the pack. Not exactly my kind of guy.

Same drill at Brownback’s office, more or less. I left a message on the staff member’s voice mail.

Now the funny part. When I came back after being gone a couple of hours I had a message waiting on my answering machine from Brownback’s ag aide, Riley Scott, saying that, as a matter of fact, Brownback does support limits on commodity payments and always has. He encouraged me to let my friends and colleagues know. He didn’t specifically say he supported the amendment or any specific limit, but he called back. Amazing!

Meanwhile, a message was in my email inbox from Senator Roberts regarding the bill approved by the Senate ag committee:

We have two victories in the commodity title: this bill leaves direct payment rates alone. I would prefer to see these payments increased….However, I am happy we have been successful in preventing cuts to the only commodity title program that provides direct assistance to producers when they have no crop to harvest. Secondly, through an amendment I offered to the newly proposed Average Crop Revenue (ACR) program, we remove the connection between crop insurance and the ACR program, protecting the viability of the program for Kansas producers. "I am concerned with provisions in this bill impacting our livestock industry – this must be improved in the final Farm Bill that will be passed by the Congress…rest assured I will work with my colleagues to continue the fight to protect the programs that work for Kansas farmers and ranchers, including direct payments, crop insurance and the EQIP program.

In other words, he continues to operate under the delusion that the programs that have caused massive consolidation in agriculture and promoted cheap, unhealthy food are a good idea. I’ll take his message to mean that he won’t be supporting the Dorgan-Grassley Amendment. I should note, though, that his staffer Ryan Flickner did call me today. True, it took a few days. True, he’s not the guy I left the message for, and, true again, I didn’t get the impression he became totally convinced of my standpoint. Still, I’m glad we talked.

How about your senators? Do you know where they stand? If not, give them a call.

I never used to call my elected reps’ offices. I figured my lone phone call wouldn’t make a bit of difference, an impression reinforced once I started calling and leaving messages. Roberts’ office in particular has been irritating. If I speak only to the receptionist, he or she never asks my name or contact information, leaving me with the feeling that the person is rolling eyes and muttering "whatever" after the hangup. (I did get through once to his aide on the spy committee, on which he’s the ranking member. The aide said he would be happy to have the government tap his telephone line without a warrant if it would thwart terrorism. Sigh.)

I think I was wrong, though, about the power of the phone call. In fact, it may be the best way to make an impression for those of us who don’t have money to gain access through contributions. Think about it. Emails are easy to ignore; how many do you delete a day? I suspect email drives by various organizations are interesting by not hugely persuasive because they’re relatively easy to accomplish.

But not that many people are willing to make the phone calls. It’s uncomfortable. It’s intimidating. And the politicians and their staff know it. That means that your voice, unless you’re ranting, makes a significantly bigger impression. Try it. Ask the name of the staff person in charge of the topic, and then ask to speak to that person. You might get through. It’s our best chance right now.

Flickner said he would share my views with Senator Roberts. I think he just might.


7 Responsesto “Calling your senators about the Farm Bill can have unexpected results”

  1. Rebecca says:

    In Vermont, you call your state senators and representatives at home. And they pick up the phone. And talk to you. Believe it, it’s true.

  2. Bonnie P. says:

    When I called Feinstein’s office on Conservation Call-in Day and asked for the ag aide, I was told no dice, I could leave a message with the nice gentleman who answered. So I did. He too seemed to lose interest when I said I was “just” a constituent,” not “with anyone.”

    When I called Boxer’s office, same deal, only the 12-year-old-sounding woman who listened to my 2-minute spiel about more money for the conservation title, the payment cap, and allowing state slaughterhouses to sell across state lines was audibly typing during my monologue. I thought she was taking notes, but when I was done, she said airily: “So you want Senator Boxer to vote FOR the Farm Bill?”


  3. Dan Owens says:

    Great, great post. Thanks. Brownback has always been supportive of real payment limits; Roberts has gone back and forth on the issue throughout his Senate career. And the Bonnie is absolutely right- you will occasionally encounter completely clueless staffers, especially in offices that do not have a designated person to deal with agriculture. Of course, I suppose one can’t expect the receptionist to be well-versed on all isses, but they should at least be listening.

    You can also continue to press forward and ask to leave messages with other staff members- you can usually find someone who will listen intelligently, even if they are not fully informed on your issue. And don’t hesitate to call a district office rather than DC- they will usually relay messages to DC, especially if you mention you’re having problems getting through to someone in DC.

    When you do encounter a truly pain-in-the-ass staffer, talk to someone else in the office and tell them. One of a congressional staffer’s primary duties is to represent the legislator effectively and keep constituents happy (or at least feeling respected). If a staffer is really communicating poorly and upsetting constituents, I guarantee the legislator and/or their chief of staff want to know as soon as possible. Staff are always busy and overwhelmed, Be polite, understand they are busy, but don’t take any crap. If staff is truly rude and/or astonishingly incompetent, make it known.

    Doing so can actually be to your benefit. The last time I was in DC a group of individuals from a certain state went to see their Senator’s agriculture staffer, who gave them the brush-off and was using his blackberry, etc while talking with them.

    One of the individuals in the meeting was actually personal friends with the Senator in question, called the Senator’s personal cell phone, and left a voice mail politely saying that they didn’t think this staffer was representing the Senator well. The Senator personally called back, apologized, and that night came to the bar where everyone was having a few beers and listened to the group’s concerns for over an hour. So in the end, it all worked out pretty well.

  4. Bonnie wrote: ‘He too seemed to lose interest when I said I was “just” a constituent,” not “with anyone.”’

    Perhaps us lowly citizens should create an interest group, like ‘United Eaters of America’ or something that makes a snazzy acronym. Our group could have millions of members, millions of votes.

  5. Peter aka Nosher of the North says:

    You’ve got some amazing chutzpah, and I admire and am also inspired by it.. I am Canadian, so I won’t be calling my senator, but I will call Agriculture Canada and ask a few questions. I suppose they are being paid with my tax dollars, so it may be part of their mandate to answer my questions….

  6. ExPat Chef says:

    Brownback wrote me back when I emailed about the farm bill. Pretty much a form letter that said some issues are better left to be handled locally. Huh? It’s national legislation. So, I sent him a response that said, “Hey, my vote for you is riding on this.” Doubt it left a mark. I was happy he had to drop out of the race for presidency.

    And, I decided, regardless of the bill’s outcome, to take Sam’s advice to the extreme and up my local food buying and involvement. If we all did that, maybe we could eradicate some of the impact of the farm bill on our food supply by just opting out for a local food supply of REAL food. I know, a dream, but I’ll tilt at the windmills.

  7. flaxenrye says:

    Thanks for the information/strategies on contacting elected officials. I haven’t thought about trying for a staffer before.