U.S. House of Representatives, 1965-1998
Indiana, 9th Congressional District
Lee Hamilton's popularity as a Congressman was grounded solidly in his concern for and communication with his constituents. The Ralph Nader Congress Project of the early 1970s (Grossman Publishers, 1972) quoted a constituent as saying that his constituents liked him "because he talks to them." Talk to them he did, returning to his district at least 40 weekends of every year throughout his career. So dependable was Hamilton's intense district visit schedule that his taking a vacation with his family in August 1971 merited a press release to account for the absence of a visit schedule that month.
Immediately upon entering Congress, Hamilton established a district office in Seymour and with his district staff undertook a study of federal funding to the counties in his district, writing to all federal agencies, and exploring the possibilities of federal support for badly needed infrastructure and community and economic development projects. By the end of his first year in Congress he had accomplished his goal of visiting every one of the 121 post offices in the sprawling rural district. By March 1967 he had stimulated enough constituent activity to merit moving a staff person from his Washington office to the district office to handle projects and constituent service, and a year later a second office was opened in Jeffersonville. By June 1970 demand merited two fulltime district staff members and the Seymour office was moved to expanded quarters in the Columbus post office; both offices were open for over forty hours a week. In October 1973 Hamilton introduced his new "mobile office," a van that would travel the district and give him more flexibility than the previous practice of scheduling meetings at post offices had allowed.In April 1976 he set up an office in Aurora as well.
By 1977 computer technology made possible an office reorganization whereby the Washington and Columbus offices could be linked by computer terminals and all casework shifted to two fulltime caseworkers employed in Columbus, which from September 1979 on handled all work dealing with local, regional, and community projects as well. The Jeffersonville office was relocated to the post office in May 1980 and in the wake of the redistricting in 1981 that put both Hamilton's Columbus office and his personal residence outside his district, the staff and operations of the Columbus office were moved to the Jeffersonville office, prompting the move into expanded quarters in spring 1982. The office now handled all project work, case work, and Indiana scheduling. The smaller office was maintained in Aurora until January 1983, when a toll-free number was installed in the Jeffersonville office to make it accessible to all of his constituents.
From early in his term Hamilton began holding local conferences and fact-finding meetings with particular interest groups -- community development leaders, welfare directors, health workers, educators, students, veterans, farmers, small businessmen, women, senior citizens -- that would continue throughout his congressional career. These meetings were not only to ascertain needs but to gather information on how federal programs were functioning, an oversight role upon which he put great weight. In September 1973 he participated in a monthly telephone hook-up with the Connersville High School senior class, and in January 1975 he initiated a series of "Talk with Your Congressman" county meetings throughout the district over the next several months. When Hamilton moved into leadership of the Joint Economic Committee as vice chair in 1983, his annual conferences with special groups were supplemented by committee field hearings in Indianapolis to consider the rural economy of Indiana.
Regular lines of communication to Hamilton were established through annual, biennial, and special interest questionnaires sent out to elicit constituent opinions on issues before Congress, which helped determine his legislative focus. Responses from these grew from 9,000 in 1966 to nearly 15,800 in 1969 and remained above 15,000 consistently over the years. His constituent mail similarly grew, reaching a high of over 35,000 letters a year by the 1980s and a total of over 50,000 constituent contacts in 1993. Every letter received a focused and meaningful response, taking advantage of computer technology as it emerged.
In addition to responses to specific constituents, Hamilton's side of the conversation also took the form of mailings and newsletters, at first general and multi-topic but quickly developing into substantive nonpartisan explorations of single important issues that he prepared weekly as his Washington Reports. Single-spaced and on legal-size paper, often on both sides, the Washington Reports were sent to mailing lists of interested constituents, to all the newspapers in the 9th district, and to select recipients within the federal government; they were also often read into the Congressional Record as a way of becoming part of a larger legislative discussion. In addition to treating major domestic and foreign policy issues, topics included how case work is handled, the multiple roles of a Congressman, how best to write to a Congressman, the constitutional roles of the Congress in oversight and foreign policy,the importance of openness and accountability in government, and the need for bureaucratic reform. In 1968 he also began a series of topical radio broadcasts, and the first of what would become a consistent schedule of newspaper and journal articles appeared. His district offices monitored local papers so that he could respond to editorials and letters to the editor, which he did on a regular basis, often to correct misrepresentations but also to add additional information to the discussion.