The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This is what it’s like answering all those phone calls to Congress

Keep on dialing.

Hundreds of thousands of people are calling here every day. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
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It’s not even noon, and I’ve already answered dozens of phone calls from angry constituents. A single mother demanded answers as to where her family could turn for health-care services if Republicans repeal the Affordable Care Act. An older gentleman had to take a breath as he used some choice words to describe House Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s proposals to cut Medicare benefits. The resentment and anger are palpable. Seconds after I hang up, the phone rings again. And again. And again.

As a communications director for Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.), answering constituent calls is not usually in my job description; in most offices on Capitol Hill, staff assistants and interns pick up. But with phones ringing off the hook since Donald Trump became the 45th president, the policy experts and I have been pitching in — and all of us have been on the receiving end of a nonstop barrage of indignation and frustration from constituents, many of whom have never been in touch before.

So I have something to say to the hordes of furious callers who continue to bombard our office on a daily basis: Thank you.

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Democratic and Republican congressional offices have been inundated with calls, letters, tweets, posts and visits from impassioned people upset and outraged by the president’s actions, Cabinet nominations and executive orders. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer’s office reported an average of 1.5 million daily calls to the Senate in the first week of February alone. Phone lines are so gridlocked that lawmakers are nervously taking to social media to apologize that constituents can’t get through and reassure them that we hear them on Capitol Hill.

Before Trump’s inauguration, our Washington office received anywhere from 120 to 200 calls in a given week. Those numbers have more than doubled this year. With some callers, ire drips from their every word, especially in relation to Republican efforts to dismantle Obamacare. With others, it’s easy to recognize the regret and disappointment in their voices, as if they’re angry with themselves for somehow allowing such a man to assume the most powerful office in the world. We rarely receive phone calls backing Trump; our district has been a Democratic stronghold for generations.

Despite claims by administration officials that opposition efforts are being led by paid operatives, these calls do not sound scripted or prompted by professional activists. We hear from people who live in our district, and from residents of elsewhere in Wisconsin and throughout the Midwest, some who are contacting us for the first time. (We don’t put calls from people outside the district into our constituent database, but otherwise, we handle all the calls the same way.) Their authenticity is impossible to mistake. Their sentiments come from a genuine place of sincerity and alarm. And at the end of each week, when we convey their fears and frustrations to our boss, we discuss what we can do as public servants to address their concerns and the atmosphere of uncertainty that has been cultivated by this administration and its policies. 

Urgent and emotionally charged calls come with the territory when you work in Congress, but some conversations follow me home from the Rayburn House Office Building. One woman broke down describing how she’s afraid to call the police in an emergency out of fear she’ll be deported. A college student asked how the Environmental Protection Agency’s administrator could question the link between human activity and climate change.

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As a Jew, I was particularly touched by a call from a father whose young daughter was one of those evacuated from the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center in Whitefish Bay, Wis., several times after recent bomb threats. For me, it evoked powerful childhood memories: My mother worked in the preschool of the Mittleman Jewish Community Center in Portland, Ore. (which also received a bomb threat recently), and our local synagogue, the place where I had my bar mitzvah, was vandalized with anti-Semitic graffiti. I was 13 or 14 at the time. I remember asking her why it happened and feeling frustrated by her answer, and I hoped that this father on the line — who wanted to know why someone like Stephen K. Bannon had a seat on the National Security Council — didn’t feel that same dissatisfaction with my response.

Thanks to my boss’s all-hands-on-deck approach, our office has been able to accommodate the influx of calls and correspondence. The congresswoman doesn’t care if there’s a “director” or “chief” in your title or if you just started your internship yesterday: When a constituent calls our office, you answer immediately. That policy was in place before the flood of calls started, and it’s served us well. At some other offices where even more calls are coming in, voice-mail inboxes overflow within hours, and call volume is so large that it’s nearly impossible for people to get through to a human being, leading to complaints of busy signals and missed calls. Still, the message is getting through to those in power.

Just before the start of the 115th Congress, House Republicans tried weakening the power of the independent Office of Congressional Ethics to investigate corruption and misconduct, only to reverse course 24 hours later after being pummeled by phone calls from infuriated constituents. Last month, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) announced that he’d withdrawn a controversial bill that would have privatized 3.3 million acres of federally owned land after conservationists, environmentalists, hunters and fishermen lashed out at him. Betsy DeVos was just barely confirmed as secretary of education after Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) opposed her nomination. Days before the vote, Murkowski took to the Senate floor and said, “I have heard from thousands — truly thousands — of Alaskans who shared their concerns about Mrs. DeVos as secretary of education.”

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The response by lawmakers to this spontaneous grass-roots uprising — women and men calling our offices, attending town halls and adding their voices on social media — demonstrates that civic participation works. And those concerned citizens appreciate that consistent engagement with their elected officials gets results. They understand that their representatives must hear and see their opposition to the path on which this country finds itself. While others saw Election Day as the last phase of their civic duty, those who continue to pepper congressional offices with their messages of opposition recognize that Nov. 8, 2016, was just the beginning.

Contrary to popular belief, politics isn’t about power but about connection. Each time a constituent calls and shares their story, my colleagues and I become a part of that story. In many cases, their concerns are our concerns. Their calls remind us of the posts our friends make on Facebook and the conversations across the dinner table with our families. For me, that shared candor provides warmth in a world that too many people find cold and lonely since the election.

For a Democratic staffer on Capitol Hill in the age of Trump, the struggle for justice can feel disheartening, if not demoralizing. But with every phone call from a concerned constituent, every tweet in support of our shared resistance, every protest sign held by someone who demands dignity for all, I feel a renewed confidence in the resilience of our democracy. Their activism gives me hope. Their resolve gives me strength. And hopefully, hearing a live voice on the other end of the phone rather than a voice-mail message does a little of the same for them.