WHAT CALLING CONGRESS ACHIEVES

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Since the election, constituents have contacted Congress in unprecedented numbers.
Illustration by Oliver Munday / Source: Gary Ombler / Getty (phone)

By Kathryn Schulz

Since the election, constituents have contacted Congress in unprecedented numbers.
Illustration by Oliver Munday / Source: Gary Ombler / Getty (phone)
Of all the liberties guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, the most underrated by far is the one that gives us the right to complain to our elected officials. Freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly: all of these are far more widely known, legislated, and litigated than the right to—as the founders rather tactfully put it—“petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

There are a great many ways to petition the government, including with actual petitions, but, short of showing up in person, the one reputed to be the most effective is picking up the phone and calling your congressional representatives. In the weeks following the Inauguration of Donald J. Trump, so many people started doing so that, in short order, voice mail filled up and landlines began blurting out busy signals. Pretty soon, even e-mails were bouncing back, with the information that the target in-box was full and the suggestion that senders “contact the recipient directly.” That being impractical, motivated constituents turned to other means. The thwarted and outraged took to Facebook or Twitter or the streets. The thwarted and determined dug up direct contact information for specific congressional staffers. The thwarted and clever remembered that it was still possible, several technological generations later, to send faxes; one Republican senator received, from a single Web-based faxing service, seven thousand two hundred and seventy-six of them in twenty-four hours. The thwarted and creative phoned up a local pizza joint, ordered a pie, and had it delivered, with a side of political opinion, to the Senate.

Americans vote, if we vote at all, roughly once every two years. But even in a slow season, when no one is resorting to faxes or protests or pizza-grams, we participate in the political life of our nation vastly more often by reaching out to our members of Congress. When we do so, however, we almost never get to speak to them directly. Instead, we wind up dealing with one of the thousands of people, many of them too young to rent a car, who collectively constitute the customer-service workforce of democracy.

For them, as for so many of us, life in the past several weeks has taken a turn for the strange and exhausting. Politically minded citizens who went to work for Congress now find themselves in the situation of airline agents during a Category 4 hurricane: a relatively small cohort with limited resources encounters a huge number of people up in arms. If you tried to call a federal legislator anytime in the past several weeks (and, full disclosure, I did: for almost my entire adult life, I have been the kind of person who likes to talk to her elected officials, from school-board members on up to senators), you were as likely as not to reach an automated recording informing you that your call could not be answered, “due to an unusually high call volume.”

Bureaucratically speaking, those are some of the most irritating words on the planet. But, politically speaking, they are the start of a tantalizing sentence: Due to an unusually high call volume, what? At present, an enormous number of people are calling their political representatives, not always to obvious effect. So what difference does it really make in the minds of lawmakers—and, more to the point, on the floors of the House and the Senate—when large numbers of everyday people start contacting Congress?

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