With 27 years of service in Congress, U.S. Representative Frank Lucas has seen a huge transition in how legislators and constituents communicate. Lucas discusses some of the hardships and benefits of legislating virtually this past year.
For people across the globe, this past year has been one of virtual connection. Whether it was friends, family or coworkers, conversations through a screen became the norm. This reality was no different for members of Congress.
When the world came to a screeching halt in March 2020, our elected officials had to face one of the largest health and economic crises to ever occur in the United States—and just like the rest of us, they had to do it virtually. This presented unique challenges for legislators who relied on in-person meetings, hearings and town halls to connect with their constituents and colleagues.
Congressman Frank Lucas (R-OK) was elected to the House of Representatives in a special election in May of 1994, in an era where bag phones and letters were the primary points of contact outside of meeting in person. With 27 years of experience behind the dias, Congressman Lucas took the time to speak with us about how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed how members connect and communicate with their constituents and other members and his hopes to return to meeting face-to-face soon.
How has adapting to a virtual setting affected the way you connect with constituents?
Lucas: We get a lot of emails and phone calls, and we still get a few letters, but I had to suspend my in-person town meetings. My custom in recent years has been to do at least one in each of my counties in my district every year, but I have not been able to have in-person meetings for essentially a year. Virtual calls are not the same as looking someone in the eye, but I think by working at it hard, myself and my very dedicated staff have been able to maintain that touch to continue to be able to work with and help our folks back home. In fairness, had we not had all of the modern electronic communications technology that’s evolved over the last 25 years, this would’ve been really hard to have done. Now, I’m looking forward to getting back out into the world as more and more of my constituents, and other people around the country, are getting vaccinated.
You recently participated in a meeting with National Sorghum Producers members as part of our virtual DC Fly-In. What was that experience like and how do you foresee these types of advocacy efforts shaping in the future? What is your best advice when it comes to constituents and organizations who want to connect with legislators in a virtual environment?
Lucas: Well first of all, it’s a two-way street, and I have a wonderful relationship with my sorghum friends going back to my very first day in Congress. We’ve worked on research programs, we’ve worked to make sure that they were treated equitably in the various farm bills, and I think we’ve made great success. With any association, it’s a two-way process though. Listening to the constituents, listening to those sorghum farmers out there, that’s important because then you take that information and you put that together in a way that then can be presented to elected officials, whether it’s members of Congress, House and Senate, or state legislature back home.
Most things in this country have a federal, state and local component too. So whether it’s USDA or the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, the members of the state legislature or members of Congress, conveying those priorities and those things that are important to the producer groups to my colleagues is key now. Something that we always need to remember is members of the United States House will serve on anywhere from 1-3 committees and United States Senators will serve on maybe four committees. Members have a lot of committee work, subcommittee work and floor votes going on all at the same time, so when my sorghum friends meet with members of Congress or the state legislature, it’s important if you’re not able to access the actual member, when you have a chance to meet with that ag staffer or that staffer who works on the issues that are important on that day to the sorghum growers, being just as methodical and just as thorough with the staffers as you would be with the member is critically important.
How has adapting to a virtual setting impacted the way you work with other members of Congress?
Lucas: This is probably the most frustrating challenge of all because with the COVID-19 protocols adopted by the United States House, we no longer all go vote together. They have basically broken up the almost 435 members into groups of five, which means the time you spend on the floor during votes discussing issues—and some of the most profound policy discussions I’ve engaged in as a member of Congress, have occurred on the floor—where there was no staff and no leadership present, where we could have a very to-the-point dialogue, whether it’s members of the same committee or members of the same state, different regions, whatever the issues, we can no longer have those discussions. We’ve lost a big part of that because we just can’t be on the floor together. I understand the health component, but it has been frustrating.
By the same token, committee work is very important, but for a year now, we’ve done committee work by virtual meeting. While it’s great to have a screen with 25 faces of people that you work with, it’s not like sitting at a long dais in a committee room where you can lean over or move over and have a discussion about what’s being discussed, why it’s being discussed, who’s presenting the information, what would you do with this information. You can’t have that kind of a free flow when you’re looking at 25 other faces on a screen. Politics, the legislative process in the poli-sci books appears as science, but it is also an art form. It’s your human interaction with your colleagues, your ability to gauge them, to figure out what’s important and what’s not important and your ability to determine when, to no fault of their own sometimes, they need more information on a point, or a perspective, or an issue, in order to make a good decision. One member providing that to other members is critically important, and it’s just difficult [to do virtually]. We’ve got to get to the point from the vaccination program in the House where we can go back to in-person, full member four sessions, and the in-person full member committee hearings. Then we can actually legislate again.
The past year was challenging, but what is the biggest positive change or outcome you have seen as a result of the trials we’ve all experienced?
Lucas: Well on the firsthand, I would say sitting on the science committee and watching how dramatically the scientific community moved to create not one, not two, but three vaccines to address COVID. There are always going to be challenges and pathogens that will attack humans, but being able to respond—and we’ll respond quicker next time—feels very reassuring. You tend to take for granted everything that’s good and everything that’s simple when everything is positive until it’s not there. This has been an opportunity for my cohorts to understand just how, not only fragile society is, but how complicated the legislative process is. I think they’ll be more appreciative when we hopefully soon get back to whatever the new normal is. Otherwise, it’s that we have survived as a nation because about 10 or 11 months ago when the sickness rates had exploded, when the hospitals were starting to overflow, and people were beginning to die in substantial numbers, there was a point in time there when you kind of wondered, “Can the scientific community achieve a response fast enough for the medical care community to be able to hold things together and implement it before we go over the curve, so to speak, and the economy and society collapse?” They did, and we survived. I always tell folks back home, I’m a farmer. Every time I put the crop in the ground, I expect to harvest something. I am an eternal optimist. You can’t be a farmer in Roger Mills County, Oklahoma, without being an eternal optimist. I was and am still eternally optimistic, although I was a little bit unnerved almost a year ago.
This story originally appeared in the Spring 2021 Issue of Sorghum Grower magazine.