Congress’ Phone System Is Broken—But It’s Still Your Best Shot


IN TIMES OF political turmoil and controversy, Senate and House office phone lines come under siege. In 2011, Obama exhorted the American people to contact their Congresspeople about the rising debt ceiling, and the flood of callers rendered phone lines useless (and crashed a bunch of websites just for good measure.) In 2010, Lady Gaga’s call to action regarding Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell meant even Gaga herself couldn’t get hold of Senator Chuck Schumer. Heck, two years after the first phones were installed in the Capitol Building in 1880, House doorkeeper Walter Brownlow was so overloaded by calls he asked permission to hire someone dedicated to answering them.

Even in 2017, in the age of Twitter and Facebook and WhatsApp and email and chatbots and internet-enabled fax machines, a phone call is the best way to not just reach your representative, but affect them. “It’s just a matter of how people process information,” says Kris Miler, who researches politics and government at the University of Maryland. Miler’s book, Constituency Representation in Congress, explores the ways legislators understand and respond to their constituents. She distinguished between personal contact—either on the phone or face-to-face—and things like email and faxes. “Both have an impact,” she says, “but the impact of personal and phone calls was much stronger.”

In the ever-present turmoil wrought by the early days of the Trump administration, the volume of phone calls has been off the charts. “People don’t call Congress when they’re happy,” says Daniel Schuman, policy director at advocacy group Demand Progress. “They call when they’re unhappy. And right now they’re scared out of their minds.” People complain about not being able to reach their representatives, while government officials complain about not getting any work done thanks to incessantly ringing phones. One particularly distraught staffer of California Senator Dianne Feinstein was caught on video saying all the calls “broke my BlackBerry. And it’s close to breaking my desktop.”

The unceasing uproar has exposed a flaw: the phones and systems in government offices are entirely unable to keep up with a population that is activated, educated, and used to instant contact. Constituents deserve a chance to make their voices heard—it’s a fundamental part of American democracy. And yet calling your representatives seems to work precisely because it’s a pain in the ass.

The Other End of the Line

Every Senate and House office has a different tech setup—they’re all aided and managed by a single administration committee, but a spokesperson for the House described each office as “like its own business.” (Both the Senate and House committees declined to comment on the record for this story.) That said, the same thing almost always happens when you call your representative. The phone—an extra-secure version of the Cisco handset you probably have in your office—rings, and someone picks it up. Usually that someone is an intern, unless they’re already on the line, in which case you’ll get a low-level staffer. In all-hands-on-deck situations, you might get someone on the legislative team. They often don’t have a script, just basic instructions on how to be decent, plus a healthy fear of saying the wrong thing. “I knew that if I said something really bad, that embarrassed them and got into the news, it was likely I was going to lose my job,” says Emily Ellsworth, a former Congressional staffer whose tweets about calling your reps went massively viral last fall. “Some staffers really love to get into debates, and really fight the people on the other end of the phone. I just didn’t do that.”

At some point during your call the staffer will ask for your address and ZIP code, to verify that you live in the representative’s district. That information, along with your feelings on the issue you’re calling about, are recorded in a database. Most offices use resource-management software called Intranet Quorum, which helps them send automated email and letters, and track their constituents’ correspondence. Everyone seems to hate Intranet Quorum. (On the plus side, it’s also extremely expensive!) Some don’t even use it; several former staffers remembered people writing information in Google Docs, or on paper, or not at all. “There’s no law that says they have to account for how they’re taking in constituent concerns,” Ellsworth says. “It’s just how you want to handle it—and whether you want to be re-elected or not.” More than one former staffer says they’ve seen many emails just go unread and deleted, many phone calls deliberately untracked and unanswered. It’s not malicious, it’s just too much.

Offices can have as many phone lines as they’d like, but between the cost of the phones, the lines, and the people to staff them, there’s little incentive to scale the system. Companies like Twilio do build cheaper, simpler, cloud-based systems, but thanks to the government’s massive security requirements and equally massive vetting process, few tech companies have the resources or interest to bring their wares to the Hill. So offices are stuck with phone tech straight out of the ’50s: a bunch of landlines.

Key staffers usually have their own lines, with hard-to-find numbers, so they can still get work done during an onslaught of calls. To manage the general number, which you can easily find online or get from the Capitol Hill Switchboard, most offices seem to have between four and seven lines. Which means, in the magical scenario where each call takes one minute, offices are open ten hours a day, and no one ever takes a bathroom break, a fully-staffed office could take 4,200 calls every day. Senator Feinstein represents 38.8 million people. I don’t like your chances.

That means most people are sent straight to voicemail, which often fills up after another 100 or so messages. Anyone who calls after that either gets a busy signal—A busy signal! In 2017!—or a message about how the mailbox they’re calling is full.

Is There Anybody Out There?

There are plenty of other ways to reach out to your representatives, of course, but they all have one thing in common: Nobody’s really paying attention. In this information-overload world, most people have learned to ignore the constant flood of stuff. Computers filter out what they don’t want to see, auto-tagging and auto-responding. And because the internet has made it so easy to type in your name and send a form email or e-fax, it’s hard for staffers to figure out how much you actually care. “If it takes them five seconds to fill out a form that shoots out a form email,” Ellsworth says. “is that the same as someone who actually takes the time to call?” Oh, and that online petition you signed? You can bet nobody on Capitol Hill saw it, or cares.

That’s why, when Nick O’Neill and Rebecca Kaufman were distraught after Hillary Clinton’s election loss in November, they turned their attention to helping people call their representatives. “You can tweet into the void all you want,” says Nick O’Neill, “but there’s something about just connecting with a human being who says, ‘Thank you for contacting us.’” O’Neill and Kaufman helped created 5 Calls, an online tool that helps people find their representatives’ phone numbers and speak out on important issues.

The site even provides a script, designed to make the process easier for both callers and the staffers on the other side. It tells you what to mention, and in what order. It also reminds you, for example, to leave your address in a voicemail or else you won’t be counted as a constituent. O’Neill’s learned about the systems in Congressional offices, the checklist the staffers run down as they talk. “We’re trying to make it as easy as possible for you to get your point across.” Since Trump’s inauguration, between 100,000 and 400,000 people have come to 5 Calls every day, and O’Neill says the site has spurred more than 233,000 calls. Which is terrific, except most of them have surely gone unanswered.

New Media

There are some obvious solutions to the Congressional phone problem, but few easy ones. Everyone I spoke to pointed to the fact that each House member is only allowed to hire 18 people, a number that hasn’t changed in decades even as district populations have swelled. When that number was decided, Schuman says almost incredulously, “there was no email. Now email is huge. Tidal waves of overwhelming communications.”

A legislator’s understanding of their district is remarkably linked to who they’ve talked to recently.

Insiders I spoke to also lamented the software they use, like Intranet Quorum, which requires too much maintenance and can’t do even simple things like add pictures to emails. They see increasing value in communication over Facebook, Twitter, email, and elsewhere, especially as computers get smarter about collecting all that correspondence and turning it into useful insights. And they believe those platforms could also be a place for Congresspeople to be more open and transparent, answering questions once in public instead of a thousand times in private. Smarter, simpler systems would let more people have their voice heard, with less work and fewer busy signals encountered on all sides.

One former House staffer says the biggest problem is simply that “there’s no constituency for making Congress more responsive to constituents,” simply because people don’t understand the depth of the problem and thus don’t demand a more responsive government. But this staffer, like others, are hopeful that more people care now than ever before.

Ultimately, everyone agrees that for all the chaos it causes, there’s real power in a phone call—in the people’s ability to burst into the day of their elected representatives. “If your phone’s ringing off the hook all day long, that’s pretty memorable,” Miler says. She’s seen Congressional debates center on the phone onslaught in a representative’s office, and found that a legislator’s understanding of their district was remarkably linked to who they’d talked to recently. Even in the last couple of weeks, the ever-ringing phone has changed legislators’ minds about what the American people want. So, yeah, phone calls are sort of awkward and hammering away at a busy signal sucks. And Congress needs to figure out how to hear and speak to its citizens more clearly. But your voice does matter. And so does your voicemail.