What it’s like to an­swer the phones on Capi­tol Hill dur­ing the Trump era.

House staffer Eric Harris says the del­uge of frus­trated voices has got­ten through to law­mak­ers

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - outlook@wash­post.com Eric Harris is the com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor for Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.).

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 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.

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 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.

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.”

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.


Amer­i­cans have been speak­ing out dur­ing the health-care de­bate, some­times jam­ming phone lines on Capi­tol Hill as they try to con­tact their rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

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