Dead Letter Society

Why do senators still send letters to attack their political enemies?

Sen. Linsey Graham (R-SC) speaks to the media about gun control regulation.

Sen. Lindsey Graham sent an actual letter—on paper—to Defense nominee Chuck Hagel.

Photo by Allison Shelley/Getty Images

On Wednesday afternoon, the office of Sen. Lindsey Graham released a letter that had just been sent to secretary of defense nominee Chuck Hagel. “I want to call your attention to and request a response to a story in the Washington Free Beacon on February 19th,” wrote Graham. He cut and pasted two paragraphs from the story, about an attendee at a 2010 Hagel speech, and his accusation that the future nominee “basically said that Israel has violated every UN resolution since 1967.” Nobody had found a recording to back up the accusation, but Graham took to his keyboard and pounced.

“Senator Hagel, did you say this?” wrote Graham. “Have you said anything similar?”

It had been only five days since the last letter from Graham to Hagel, asking about another Free Beacon story regarding another speech. Hagel had sent Graham his own letter, denying the accusation. Graham described the letter on TV, before a diligent Fox News reporter snagged a copy.

This raises two questions. One: Will Hagel respond to the final few days of “What about your gaffes”-style accusations by being more transparent? Two: Why do senators send formal letters whenever they need to ask a question? Couldn’t they could just pick up the phone or send emails or thumb-type Twitter DMs? Why don’t they?

You might assume some formal reason from the Senate rulebook, but you’d be wrong. Nothing in the House’s or the Senate’s rules specifies any situation where a question or answer has to be submitted in the form of a printed letter.

“It’s old school politics,” says Jim Manley, a former spokesman for Nevada Sen. Harry Reid. “You get to satisfy any concerns about collegiality by giving a colleague or a nominee a heads up before giving the letter. You’re not ambushing him. You’re giving him time before releasing this to press.”

It works like this. Any letter to members or a nominee is drafted, approved, and printed. A human being has to deliver the letter. “Either you find a willing intern who wants to play a role in history, or you give the job to a staff assistant,” says Manley. The courier has to confirm receipt by the addressee or his/her secretary. (The Graham letters to Hagel have been delivered to his office at Georgetown University.) When the courier returns to the office, and confirms delivery, the member of Congress can start blabbing to the press and releasing the text of what was sent. He doesn’t need to wait for the addressee to actually read the thing. He just needs to say that it got to his desk.

Decades ago, this worked like a dream for the letter writer and his target, a way to trade information or accusations quickly and for posterity. Now, when the text of the letter can be PDF’d and pasted online, it carries a whiff of passive aggression—it’s more like a subpoena than a normal “hey, would you check this out?” question. Two weeks ago, freshman Texas Sen. Ted Cruz let it be known that he was gathering signatures on a letter to Michigan Sen. Carl Levin, and that this letter would ask for a delay in the Armed Services committee’s vote on Chuck Hagel. Cruz then released the letter to the Washington Post’s somewhat Hagel-skeptical blogger Jennifer Rubin. And then, instead of immediately responding, Levin composed a long letter explaining to the committee’s ranking member, James Inhofe, that senators “cannot have two different sets of financial disclosure standards for nominees.”

If this looked like grandstanding, good eye: It was. “When you’re sending an official letter you’re killing two birds with one stone,” says Manley. “You’re not ambushing your colleague, but you’re not giving the recipient the chance to shape the message in his own direction, either. It’s far too easy to dream up a press strategy that involves writing a letter and quickly releasing it to reporters, making the recipient look pressured. There are strategists who spend whole days thinking of stuff like this.”

And so a token of congressional collegiality, a tradition from the days of wigs and quills, has taken on the feel of a subpoena. It bestows the sender with clout he couldn’t get with a mere phone call or cable news appearance. Case in point: Today, a spokesman for Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby said the senator would vote to confirm Chuck Hagel “barring any unforeseen surprises.” That was quickly chased out of the headlines by the news that Texas Sen. John Cornyn was asking senators to sign a letter that “formally asks” the White House to dump Hagel. What gives that letter more heft than Cornyn’s previous press releases, which also asked the White House to dump Hagel? Nothing. But it sounds important, and it gives the courier something to do on a slow Thursday.