The young secretary from Glen Burnie, paralyzed in a motorcycle accident, could not obtain federal disability payments to which she knew she was entitled, despite phone calls month after month to her Social Security office.
Ironically, her husband, a welder, not only started receiving benefits immediately when a kidney ailment temporarily kept him off the job, but once he returned to work, he was unable to get the bureaucracy to cut off the checks.
Although sinking under the weight of medical bills, the couple was unwilling to spend the husband's excess payments, fearing they could be charged with defrauding the government. After they had battled with Social Security for four years, someone suggested they ask their U.S. senator for help.
Complaints like this -- people having trouble negotiating the bureaucratic maze of the federal government -- pour into Capitol Hill offices by the thousands every week. Often they are poignant appeals from constitutents who see their senators and representatives as a last-gasp hope.
They are "distraught," "angry," "desperate," says Sen. William S. Cohen (R- Maine), whose office gets 1,500 letters a week, many asking for help. Some constituents show up in person carrying binders full of correspondence with federal offices. Often, although not always, the congressional office is able to work out a solution.
In the case of the Glen Burnie couple, who sought out the office of Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.), the solution was in unscrambling several paperwork errors. The woman's previous employer had garbled her Social Security number when filing payments, and she was not being credited with earnings received under her maiden name. These mistakes were uncovered by a Sarbanes aide working with Social Security for several weeks. Finally, the couple was square with the government.
To alert others -- who may not know that congressional assistance is available--Cohen has written (with University of Baltimore law professor Kenneth Lasson) a new guide, Getting the Most Out of Washington: Using Congress To Move the Federal Bureaucracy (Facts on File, 220 pages, $15.95). The book chronicles a number of constituent problems, including the Maryland couple's plight, congressional staffs have dealt with. The stories let people know, says Cohen, "that your case may not be so bizarre after all."
"The easiest and best way to get what you want out of Washington," he writes, is something we've all suspected: "Know someone, preferably someone with both power and information.
"Most Americans have at least several agent/advocates in Washington who are virtually ideal problem-solvers -- who work long hours, pursue difficult situations to reasonable resolutions and do not charge for their services. They are skilled at penetrating the red tape of bureaucracy.
"In an almost endless variety of circumstances, getting what you want out of Washington means calling or writing your congressman or senator."
In Maine, says Cohen, Agriculture is the department that generates many complaints. One Presque Isle potato grower was informed one year he could not sell his crop of seedling potatoes because it was suspected it might be infested with a dangerous parisite. In fact, the farmer's acreage had been tested eight times in the previous nine years and found to be pest-free.
Meanwhile, the farmer learned the government would pay him for his losses resulting from the sales restrictions. One catch: There had to be evidence of infestation, and none had been found. Restrictions imposed on suspicions only did not qualify for compensation. The farmer took his problem to Cohen, who along with another Maine congressman, pushed through legislation to get him his money.
Constituent aid of this kind, says Cohen, 42, a lawyer who served three terms in the House before being elected to the Senate in 1978, is "very important" both to the folks back home and to the elected official, who could be out of a job if voter requests are ignored.
"As much as 40 percent of staff time is spent in case work," says Cohen. "Many times we can handle things more expeditiously. We're the ones who act as a check against bureaucratic indifference."
While the assumption may be that senators and representatives are elected to legislate, casework has taken on increasing significance as the government has grown. "The cases of individual hardship inflicted by government practice or neglect are legion," claims Cohen, "and, it seems, never ending." Some offices are altering their budgets to hire fewer legislative aides and more constituent workers.
Up until about 1960, he says, members of Congress usually first heard of a home district problem from a local politician or religious leader, who served as screening agents for legitimate complaints. "But times have changed; now people feel closer to their elected representatives, who speak to them directly through news broadcasts and interviews and make pitches for votes in television commercials and debates."
Cohen has two staff members in each of his six home offices who conduct "citizen hours" throughout the state. If a grievance can't be handled there, it's bounced to the Washington office, where several staff members share casework responsibility. If clout is needed, Cohen makes the phone calls.
One representative accepts computer messages from his constituents and another has set up a toll-free number to take calls from the home district. At times, if the problem is widespread, the Senate or the House may hold hearings to consider legislative remedies.
The ordinary citizen calling a government office "is likely," says Cohen, "to be greeted by a busy signal, a recording or a series of transfer references often ending with the message that the bureaucrat with the necessary information is 'not available at the moment.' " But a caseworker, familiar with how Washington works, may be able to make contact through a congressional liaison office "established within each federal agency especially to assist caseworkers and legislative aides."
Sometimes, however, even congressional clout is not enough. "We're expected to slay the behemoth the bureaucracy , but it sits there and stares at us with an inscrutable look. Many of us find it infuriating that we can't get through."
While an agency like the Social Security Administration is fairly responsive to Capitol Hill inquiries, "we tread very carefully," says Cohen, with the Internal Revenue Service because of fear that an individual's case may be jeopardized. In dealing with tax problems, "we make inquiries on the progress of the matter and never try to directly influence it."
Although Cohen concedes that the size and complexity of our government are partly to blame for a "bureacratic cold heart," he points to other reasons:
"When you're in the bureaucracy here, you rarely have to relate to people. In dealing with the files all day, you can become indifferent. You never see anyone but supervisors and friends. You don't have to deal with constituents."
On Capitol Hill, however, he sees the situation as different. "Almost all of our experiences -- campaigning for election -- are human contact. We have to deal with the voters."