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.
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.