‘All hands on deck’ as Trump opposition jams phone lines for Philly-area congressmen

Members of MoveOn.org as well as Indivisible, a new and growing protest movement, marched outside Rep. Frank LoBiondo’s Mays Landing office Tuesday, Jan. 31. LoBiondo was not at his office but Linda Hinckley, a staffer, took questions in the conference room.

If you’re looking to reach Congress, your phone call may be more powerful than your hashtag. The old-school methods still work, congressmen and their aides say.

Following a flurry of activity from the White House — cabinet nominations, executive orders, presidential declarations — floods of people have been jamming congressional phone lines and tying up staffers.

“I almost want to tell our guys and gals, ‘Forget about the calls’; we can’t even work,” said Rep. Bob Brady, the Philadelphia Democratic Party chairman.

Senators have been particularly targeted, as people call to support or, often, oppose President Trump’s cabinet nominees.

Call volume this week across the Senate more than doubled the previous record, set in 2013, according to a spokeswoman for Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.). The administrators who track call volume didn’t specify what issue triggered the previous record, Casey’s office said.

Many of the calls come from organized campaigns — congressional staffers say they can usually tell when someone has been told to call by an advocacy group, and those calls have increased.

Many are calling — or showing up in person — to register concerns about the fate of the Affordable Care Act and the GOP’s plans to replace it, for example.

Outside Republican Rep. Frank LoBiondo’s office on Main Street in Mays Landing, N.J., Debra Barnet, 62, of Margate, is leading a weekly protest.

“That’s what the Tea Party did,” she said. “That’s how the Tea Party was able to activate and get to where they are today. They have everything now. They did things at the grassroots level, going to the offices, for years.”

Sen. Pat Toomey’s office said the Pa. Republican’s phone lines were being jammed in recent days because “there is a lot going on in Washington right now. As such, many Pennsylvanians are calling to make their voices heard on a range of issues.”

Constituents appear to be mindful that their best chance to influence policy in Washington is to connect with their representative in Congress. Some are trying to bridge digital activism with real-world action.  

Nick O’Neill, 32, who grew up in Conshohocken, created a site, 5calls.org, where users enter their location to find the names and phone numbers for their representatives and senators. Users select from issues they care about — the top three have been “Oppose Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education,” “Reject the Muslim Ban,” and “Prevent the Confirmation of Jeff Sessions for Attorney General” — and are given background information and a script for calling.

Since the launch of 5 Calls on Jan. 18, its users have made more than 332,000 calls, said O’Neill, who now works at a technology start-up in San Francisco.

The idea is to make it easy for people to be heard, O’Neill said.

“There is no other system where we can provide our voice in a way that is as universally accepted and counted as reliably as a phone call. There is no alternative; they don’t have an app that we can use.”


— Nick O’Neill

The congressional office of Tom MacArthur, a Republican who represents Burlington and Ocean Counties in New Jersey, had initially not experienced a major change in call volume until Trump signed an executive order last Friday clamping down on immigration. This week, an aide said, they’ve been inundated.

Casey spokeswoman Jacklin Rhoads said constituent correspondence via phone calls, emails, and letters is up nearly 900 percent over the same week last year, and social media engagement is up almost 2,000 percent.

Of course, it’s not surprising that the election of a new president would spur more discussion, given a new direction on policy.

As of Thursday afternoon, Casey’s office had received nearly 80,000 pieces of mail about Trump’s nominee for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, who has been criticized for her aggressive support of private and charter schools.

Casey, like all Senate Democrats and two Republicans, opposes the nomination of DeVos.

Toomey’s office has been bombarded by phone calls and protests, drawing complaints from his critics that constituents can’t get through to register their views and accusations that he is shutting them out.

“Senator Toomey’s staff in both Pennsylvania and Washington are taking an ‘all-hands-on-deck’ approach in answering as many calls and emails as possible while also attending to other responsibilities, such as helping veterans, seniors, and attending to legislative concerns,” a spokeswoman said in a statement. “Voice-mail accounts are being emptied regularly, but with call volume as heavy as it is, mailboxes do fill quickly.”

Calling isn’t the only option: Some lawmakers encourage reaching out via Twitter or Facebook, and old standbys such as email or snail mail remain reliable.

In most offices, constituent calls are answered by a staffer who logs name, location, and reason for calling. Emails usually are recorded the same way. Screening can delay receipt for days, even weeks.

Rhoads, Casey’s spokeswoman, said all methods of contact work. “All correspondence with our office is created equal so call, email, write a letter, tweet at us — we want to hear from you,” she said.

Frank Luna, MacArthur’s chief of staff, said the congressman receives information about constituent calls and letters, but he also sometimes looks through his Facebook page and tells staffers to respond to specific posts. When that happens, Luna said, the Facebook contact ends up being the most direct way to reach MacArthur.

Not so for Brady, whose chief of staff, Stanley White, said staffers do not log Facebook interactions, in part because it is difficult to tell whether people are in the district.

White suggests emailing Brady’s office, because both emails and calls are instant and direct, but calls still have the filter of a staffer on the other end. Emails can ensure nuance gets through, he said.

Looking through the office’s database, White found that constituent contacts had actually decreased recently: There were 1,767 contacts last month, down about one-third from 2,632 in January 2013.

In general, Brady said, people calling this year are emotional and passionate.

“The ’17 calls are from people who are really concerned and nervous … The ’17 calls are from people who are scared to death,” Brady said, adding the topics have also changed.

In the first month of 2013, shortly after the massacre at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., the number-one issue was gun control, White said; last month, more calls were about supporting refugees than any other topic.

“This isn’t organized,” Brady said.

“Mainly, it’s just people that are calling because they want to talk to somebody,” he said, “and hope that someone can give them hope.”

Staff writers Amy S. Rosenberg and Jonathan Tamari contributed to this report.