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THE WASHINGTON CONNECTION / ALAN C. MILLER

Market Research Congressional Style

May 06, 1994|ALAN C. MILLER

WASHINGTON — If you read your mail carefully, you've probably seen them. If you're politically inclined, you may have answered them.

In any case, you've definitely paid for them.

They are congressional questionnaires, a staple of taxpayer-funded newsletters for California lawmakers as well as their colleagues. These newsletters are approved by a congressional commission to limit political content, but the surveys are given wide latitude.

They usually arrive in a slickly produced mailing replete with photos of the lawmaker and prose touting a stellar voting record or heroic efforts to combat drugs or curb illegal immigration.

The questionnaires purport to be an effort to find out how constituents feel about crime or health care or other major issues. But don't confuse them with legitimate polling.

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No doubt, some members of Congress do learn more about the feelings of those they represent. Almost all say they do. But, for many, the questionnaires fulfill other, more self-serving, purposes.

One is political persuasion, masquerading as polling. What else is one to make of the first question on a "Crime in America" survey sent out by conservative Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Rocklin)?

"Do you support legislation to end unlimited, frivolous appeals that have clogged federal courts and delayed the finality of state sentences?"

Well, when you put it that way, Congressman, who could possibly say no?

Nevertheless, Bill Mueller, Doolittle's spokesman, said: "This survey was the barometer by which the congressman developed legislation on crime. This is a very good, very important way for us to get feedback from our constituents."

Conversely, consider this query-cum-commentary from Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Burlingame). Please answer yes or no to the following:

"Individuals convicted of three violent crimes should serve prison sentences without any possibility of parole until they reach a certain age when they no longer have the ability to commit violent crimes (emphasis his). This will prevent our prisons from becoming nursing homes for aging criminals."

To be sure, other questionnaires are worded more straightforwardly. But pollsters say that even then, the small, self-selecting pool of respondents is unreliable as a cross-section of a district's sentiment.

These professionals seek a response rate of at least 60% to 70%--with 50% considered rock bottom--for a survey to be statistically valid. Even lawmakers who run up 15,000 or more replies still hear from no more than 5% to 10%.

As a sample, biases are likely. Constituents who disagree with a lawmaker may be prone to toss the newsletter. Those with more time and interest are most likely to reply.

The results therefore may suggest that an official is in tune with his core supporters or with likely voters, especially if the responses reinforce other forms of communication. Or they could yield ammunition, however specious, to claim the official is in sync.

But the real purpose may have nothing to do with the views of voters in the district. Rather, some members use them to collect data about constituents.

The individual replies are punched into a computer--also at taxpayers' expense--and deployed to do more narrowly targeted mailings. Officials are prohibited from transferring this information to election campaigns, but the congressional offices sometimes use the same kind of technique favored by political professionals.

Not only do lawmakers learn respondents' views on issues, but some ask for demographic information such as sex, age, marital status and occupation. This can become the basis for a personal profile to be used in subsequent customized letters.

Congressional challengers decry this political marketing as an unfair incumbent election advantage.

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The most direct approach is to ask constituents which issues matter most to them. Freshman Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Petaluma) posed such a query in a 1993 newsletter. She quickly put the answers to use.

"I appreciate your taking the time to let me know which issues are important to you," began a February, 1994, letter to selected constituents. "Because you indicated that deficit reduction is a top priority, I wanted to take the opportunity to update you on my activities in this area."

She did lots of updating. She sent individually addressed letters to those concerned about education, political reform, welfare reform, women's equality issues, AIDS/HIV, crime, Central America, developments in the Middle East, environmental protection, the gay and lesbian community, aid to senior citizens and veterans issues.

There is no doubt that such mailings are helpful. The question, one not likely to be found in any congressional newsletter, is: to whom?

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