The Speaker's Lobby: Constituent Service
By: Chad Pergram, FOX News
16 July 2009
The legislative process is often described as messy. Muddled. Exasperating.
But Marianne Stringer of Palm Bay, FL, discovered it can sometimes be downright cruel.
A military widow, Stringer never thought that appealing to Congress on behalf of the families of fallen service members could prompt a lawmaker's aide to threaten to call the cops on her.
Stringer's a member of Gold Star Wives of America. It's an organization of widows and widowers whose loved ones died on active duty or from a condition induced by military service. The group helps family members navigate the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs to obtain federal benefits. They also lobby Congress. Eleanor Roosevelt helped incorporate Gold Star Wives at the end of World War II.
Stringer's husband Thomas died in 2002 after exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. She was married to the Coast Guard veteran for 32 years. And Stringer's worked with Gold Star Wives to urge Congress to okay a bill that would prevent a cut in compensation to spouses who lost their significant others.
Gold Star Wives contacted the offices of 400 House Members to win support for legislation that would halt the benefit reduction. Reps. Solomon Ortiz (D-TX) and Henry Brown (R-SC) authored the measure. A total of 260 lawmakers signed on as co-sponsors. So Stringer and the Gold Star Wives pushed the remaining 140 representatives to sign on.
Stringer then did what thousands of other Americans do each day. She wrote to those lawmakers, appealing for their support. It's not good enough to enlist your own representative and senators. You must forge a coalition.
"Please, help us to understand your reluctance in supporting HR 775," Stringer wrote to Michael Clauser, national security legislative assistant to Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX). "If you do not understand the clear intent of this bill, we will be happy to furnish you with any information you may be seeking."
And that's when Clauser informed the military widow to back off or he was turning her in.
Stringer was flabbergasted at Clauser's response.
In an email from Clauser to Stringer obtained by FOX, the Thornberry staffer told her she is a "resident of Palm Bay, Florida. Your Congressman is Rep. Bill Posey." Clauser suggested she contact Posey instead. He then instructed Stringer to "discontinue emailing me" and warned "I will interpret any further communications with me from you or non-constituent members of your organization as harassment and report your name and address to the Capitol Police."
Stringer and the Gold Star Wives were shocked to be threatened with police action for exercising their First Amendment rights to petition government.
"All of the letter responses have been fantastic," Stringer said. "This was the first nasty response."
Stringer was particularly peeved at what she believed was a condescending attitude.
"I know who my Congressman is," Stringer snorted.
Stringer's Congressman, Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) didn't appreciate Thornberry's aide intimidating one of his constituents. Particularly a member of Gold Star Wives.
"It's unconscionable," Posey said. "My staff knows that one of the ways to submit their resignation is to say we can't help if you're in someone else's district."
Posey added that he would be "shocked if Thornberry is not shocked."
Sure enough, Thornberry's office is shocked plenty.
In a statement, Thornberry Chief of Staff Bill Harris said that Clauser's remarks "are in no way reflective of the culture of this office or the way Congressman Thornberry expects his staff to conduct themselves. Especially toward members of America's military family."
Clauser then apologized to Stringer via email, describing his missive as "tart."
"My response to you was both rude and impatient," he wrote in a message obtained by FOX.
But the apology didn't fully satisfy Stringer.
"I have to accept it. That's the gracious thing to do," Stringer said. "But to have such disdain and such dislike for these military widows...Why are you in that position?"
Bill Harris declined to say whether Clauser could be disciplined. But offered this ominous statement: "I am unable to discuss personnel matters," Hill said. "So I cannot comment on Mr. Clauser's future with this office."
Despite the nature of Clauser's response, many Congressional aides concede that some advocacy organizations are relentless in their canvassing efforts. And the intensity can boil the blood of overworked Capitol Hill staff.
"It can be overwhelming. Some groups get your Irish up," said an anonymous Congressional aide who deals with lobbying campaigns.
Gold Star Wives contacted Thornberry's office multiple times. But Hill said that still didn't justify the curt response.
"It doesn't matter whether it was one, 20 or 120 emails," Hill said. "That is not the way we conduct ourselves in this office."
Posey defended his constituent's effort to broaden support for the legislation.
"That's the process," Posey said. "There's nothing wrong with what she did."
Stringer says this won't chill her efforts to lobby lawmakers. But the exchange stings.
"We didn't ask to be widows," she said.
- Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He's won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.