What Calling Congress Achieves

tags: Congress, Protest

Kathryn Schulz joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 2015. In 2016, she won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing and a National Magazine Award for “The Really Big One,” her story on the seismic risk in the Pacific Northwest. Previously, she was the book critic for New York, the editor of the environmental magazine Grist, and a reporter and editor at the Santiago Times. She was a 2004 recipient of the Pew Fellowship in International Journalism and has reported from Central and South America, Japan, and the Middle East. She is the author of “Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error” (2010).

... 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?

In 1876, the centenary of American independence, Alexander Graham Bell filed a patent for the telephone, and that device has been mixed up with our national politics ever since. The following year, Rutherford B. Hayes had one installed in the White House. (Its phone number was “1.”) Three years later, the technology came to Capitol Hill, in the form of a single phone placed in the lobby of the House of Representatives, where it was answered, increasingly often and increasingly to his inconvenience, by the House doorkeeper. More phones appeared soon afterward, but demand kept outstripping supply, until, eventually, Congress purchased a hundred-line switchboard, placed it in the Capitol Building, and, in 1898, hired a young woman named Harriott Daley to operate it.

“A brisk, pleasant little woman with probably the most important unofficial position in the United States Congress”: that is how a newspaper correspondent once described Daley, who was twenty-five, widowed, and raising a young daughter when she took the job. In the beginning, she worked alone, from eight in the morning until as late as midnight, answering some two hundred calls a day across all of Congress. By the middle of the twentieth century, that number had increased to sixty thousand, or almost twenty-two million calls a year, and the telephone staff had grown in tandem. By the time Daley retired, in 1945, she oversaw fifty other operators, colloquially known as Hello Girls. Also by then, she could reputedly recognize some ninety-six senators, three hundred and ninety-four representatives, and three hundred journalists by the sound of their voices.

Almost as soon as Daley began answering the phones, everyday citizens began using them to give legislators a piece of their mind. In 1928, an oil and gas company urged citizens to call their senators to oppose a gas tax; sometime later, a Utah gentleman published a poem urging people to call their senators to request better wintertime road-clearing. Other early telephone activists called Congress about other concerns: the Selective Service, school funding, Social Security legislation, power-company regulation, the agricultural potential of sugar beets. By mid-century, a Marjorie Lansing, of Massachusetts, was travelling around the country encouraging constituents to adopt “the pester technique”: “Call your senator in his office, call him at home late at night, call him in the morning before he’s had his breakfast eggs.” Even members of Congress sometimes urged people to call members of Congress: in 1941, Representative Jeannette Rankin, of Montana, told those opposed to American involvement in the Second World War to “call your congressman by telephone every day and tell him how you feel.”

Today, thanks to the Internet-as-all-purpose-phone-book, it is easier than ever to call your Congress members, by bypassing the switchboard and phoning their offices directly. If you do so, your call will be answered not by a Capitol operator (today, they number only in the couple of dozen) but, most likely, by a staff assistant or an intern. Staff assistants are typically recent college graduates, twenty-three or twenty-four years old, learning the ropes of American politics before they go off to get a business degree or a master’s in political science. Interns tend to be even younger—nineteen- and twenty-year-olds taking a summer job or some time off from school—although they do basically the same work, usually minus the salary. Together, these staffers can be found working for the five hundred and thirty-five voting members of Congress, the forty-nine congressional committees, commissions, and caucuses, and the district office of every lawmaker in every state. An exact head count is hard to come by, but the congressional employees whose time is mostly spent fielding constituent messages number in the thousands. ...

Read entire article at The New Yorker

comments powered by Disqus