On a recent Friday night, I arrived home from a social engagement and set my alarm for 4 am, because I needed to call House Speaker Paul Ryan. It’s become a lonely, private habit, this last two weeks, calling Paul Ryan. Specifically, I dial his constituent hotline numbers, all four of them—one in DC and three in Wisconsin—at every hour of the day. Every single time, at every conceivable hour, I’ve gotten a busy signal. What’s wrong with Paul Ryan’s phones?
The short answer is that Paul Ryan’s phones appear to be busted because too many people are trying to call him to weigh in on things like the fate of the Affordable Care Act. The slightly longer answer—taking into account that a whole lot of people are having trouble getting in touch with their elected officials lately—is that politicians are frequently not actually prepared to hear from their constituents in large numbers. That seems like a problem.
The root of Paul Ryan’s mysteriously busted phones is, as best we can tell, a phone survey he began conducting back in November on the Affordable Care Act, apparently hoping it would lead to a deluge of calls about how much everybody hates it. It’s unclear what the actual result of the poll has been—Ryan’s office hasn’t released any info on that—but it’s a fact that since then, an enormous number of people on social media have complained that they get nothing but busy signals and “all circuits are busy” messages when trying to call Ryan to voice their support for the ACA.
Snopes found no proof in the rumor that Ryan is “blocking” calls and faxes to his offices, but also noted that calls to his offices “generated busy signals.” They attributed that to the popularity of the rumor, reasoning that it was leading more people to try to call Paul Ryan, further jamming his phones.
That makes good sense. But in my efforts to test that theory, I found that I couldn’t reach Ryan’s office ever, not for two weeks, getting busy signals even at extremely odd hours, like 2 am on a Saturday, when it’s exceedingly unlikely that a large number of people would actually be trying to call him. (I’m aware of how sad it is to set an alarm to call Paul Ryan in the middle of the night on a weekend and I’d like to urge you not to tweet at me about it.)
I would have liked to talk about this with Ryan’s press officer, but I couldn’t. Her phone works—in that I was able to leave a voicemail—but she never called back. She also did not respond to three emails.
I did, however, discover one way it’s still possible to call Paul Ryan: by using the Congressional switchboard number and asking to be connected to his office. (The switchboard number, in case you really hate clicking links, is 202-224-3121. You can use it to be connected to your senator or congressperson’s office, and, because of the retro nature of the concept of a switchboard, feel like you’re in a tense 1970's political thriller all at the same time.)
The switchboard, at least for now, works. You can’t talk to a human, of course, but you can listen to Paul Ryan’s dizzying array of voicemail messages. There’s the one about the ACA, of course. There are also ones where you can hear his statements on tax reform (it’s good), Second Amendment rights (also good), Iran and their nuclear capabilities (bad), and even a particularly thrilling one about “a better way forward” (couldn’t force myself to listen to that one, assume good). You will be assured that your views “are important to us.”
It shouldn’t be this hard to figure out how to call an elected official, of course, and Ryan is far from alone. Since Donald Trump took office, the White House phone line for comments is, infamously, no longer working. Citizens have been told to use Facebook Messenger—which the White House Facebook page does not actually have—or submit a web form that feels an awful lot like howling into a void. A company called Revolution Messaging that previously worked with the Sanders campaign created a beautiful workaround called White House Inc., connecting you to one of Trump’s businesses instead:
By not divesting himself from his businesses, he’s actually creating satellite White Houses all over the world. That means we have dozens of phone numbers we can use to reach the president and discuss the issues that matter most.
Foreign leaders and Wall Street executives know that if they want to reach out to our President, they can just connect with his business associates. Now the American people have a direct line to Trump too.
The conservative Washington Free Beacon claimed, citing anonymous sources, that Democratic Senator Dick Durbin took his phones off the hook after a deluge of calls from “pro-Israel supporters.” (Durbin’s phone lines are working normally as of Friday. “You’re welcome to call,” a baffled, polite young man at his DC office told me, just now, before I apologized for wasting his time.) Lots of people have been trying to call Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein to urge her not to vote to confirm Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions; they too are complaining of permanent busy signals. On a state level, Missouri voters can’t seem to reach Governor Eric Greitens’ office lately, to voice their opposition to a proposed anti-union Right to Work law.
Sometimes, the point is to flood the phones: A progressive group called Credo Action purposely tried to jam the phone lines of senators to voice their opposition to Betsy DeVos, Trump’s ludicrously unqualified proposed education secretary. Labor unions and other liberal groups are doing it too, and it’s having its intended effect: telegraphing extremely widespread disapproval of DeVos.
It’s a daunting reality, learning that our representatives aren’t set up to actually hear from larger numbers of us when we need them to the most, and it feels a little discouraging. Nonetheless, calling your members of Congress is a good idea, and the most effective way to lobby them. We should all keep doing it, in addition to getting involved with local grassroots actions. And both Paul Ryan and the White House should fix this communication issue, and get ready, as anybody who’s ever been put on hold could tell you, for “increased call volume” for the next four years.