The Personal Blog of Stephen Sekula

Advice to the American People (from a science advocate)

Science advocacy has given me opportunities to grow not only as an American citizen, but as a citizen scientist. I’ve watched how some Americans have been acting at recent town hall meetings, and I have been horrified. I will not comment on the verity of claims made by those shouting at and disrupting town hall meetings. I will only offer the following pieces of advice to people who wish to have an interaction with a member of Congress.

  1. Understand the legislative process.
    Both chambers of Congress – the House and the Senate – can originate legislation such as health care and insurance reform. This particular issue is complicated by the fact that multiple committees in each chamber have oversight over different parts of the process, and so can originate legislation dealing with those parts. Each chamber must then stitch these bills together. At present, only ONE of the two House committees in this process have produced a bill, which means that the negotiations haven’t even really begun. The Senate committees haven’t produced any bills yet, and when they do they will likely differ significantly from their House partners. The House/Senate conference will resolve differences, and is a final opportunity for debate and influence.

    The House Energy and Commerce Committee bill is H.R. 3200, available here:

  2. Read the legislation.
    Your time in front of the Member, even in a broad setting like a town hall meeting, is limited and valuable. Your access is unlimited, but the duration of that access is not. Therefore, wasting their time with arguments based on potential mis-information is a very bad idea. It make you look irresponsible and it makes them frustrated; then nobody wins.

    I am always mindful of the story of a man, a protestor, who got into a President H. W. Bush press conference in the guise of a reporter. In the middle of the press conference, perhaps even when he was called upon for a question, the man stood up and tried to say something loud and pithy – a short, sharp stab at Bush’s political heart. Bush challenged him on the statement, and the man had no substance to back it up. He looked foolish in front of everyone, and he never forgot that moment in his political life.

    So go read the bill ahead of time. The argument that these bills are big is valid if you have to print it, but on the internet nothing is too big for searching. I recommend that in lieu of reading the whole thing, search for words related to issues of interest. For instance, searching for “hospice” reveals the section of the bill that has received all the recent controversy, rightly or not.

  3. Check your temper at the door.
    I’ve been on several visits to offices with people who enjoyed using colorful language and strong emotions to align themselves with the political biases of the office. This is the flip-side of applying words and emotions AGAINST the office. Both are bad. One is pandering and the other is stonewalling. Neither is productive.

    Instead, formulate a good question based on your own reading (not another’s) of the bill. Check your understanding of the facts. If you got your information from the TV or the internet, re-read the relevant portion of the bill and make sure your understanding aligns with the digested version you plan to use as the basis of your argument.

    Don’t let your feelings about an issue cloud your judgment of the reality of a bill, and certainly don’t take a clouded perspective in front of a lawmaker.

Engaging with lawmakers may not be fun for your or for them, but spicing up that interaction with somebody else’s words and ideas is not responsible citizenship. If you can’t get the bill easily (e.g. no internet access), work with a friend or family member to get to the text or go to a public library – they can help! Heck, use the opportunity to have a discussion with your friends and family that leads to more investigation of the legislation. Keep in mind that this current healthcare bill debate is over (a) one of two bills from (b) one of two chambers of the Congress and (c) prior to further debate and discussions that are happening now in the country and later in Congress.

A bill this early in the process is not set in stone, and you have the power to influence its contents. Wield that power wisely. If you can’t, go ahead and try shouting. But remember you’re on TV or YouTube, and in the end it’s like being caught on camera in a drunken bar brawl. You’ll just regret it later when you have to watch it over and over, and it’s pretty unlikely the Member will actually remember you. In a mob, every face looks the same.