Trying to call your elected officials in Washington? Sorry, that voicemail box is full

Constituents frustrated that they can't weigh in
Posted at 10:00 AM, Feb 11, 2017
and last updated 2017-02-11 10:09:02-05

Whether you're a big fan of President Trump or fanatically opposed to just about anything he says or does, good luck registering your opinion with your U.S. senator or member of Congress.

Although there is no definitive data available on how many calls -- pro or con -- members of Congress have received since Trump took office Jan. 20, senators from Ohio and Kentucky and at least one U.S. representative said the simple act of leaving a message isn't all that simple right now because their offices have been swamped with calls.

They won't get any argument from Cincinnati-area residents, many of whom say they're frustrated about their inability to leave a message about either Trump appointees or executive orders that he's signed.

Mary Darner of College Hill said she routinely gets busy signals on the phone or a message that the voicemail box is full when she attempts to call one of her senators or U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot, a Republican whose district includes much of Cincinnati and its suburbs.

"And you never get a response, because you can't get through. The same thing happened when (House Speaker) Paul Ryan was talking about repealing the ACA (Affordable Care Act) and you could never get through," Darner said minutes after she and four other people wrapped up a meeting with a Chabot staffer in his Carew Tower office downtown.

Antoinette Asimus, also of College Hill, wondered whether the inability to handle a substantial volume of calls and emails was "purposeful, or whether they just didn't want to spend the money on the technology that they would need."

Darner and Asimus and several other people met with Chabot's staff Thursday to discuss a couple of issues they would later demonstrate about a couple of blocks from the congressman's office.

Members of the loosely organized group, who said they met through social media, accused Chabot of refusing to meet with them and declining to hold "town hall" meetings that were truly open forums where questions were not pre-screened by his staff. Their "Where Is Steve?" demonstration focused on their contention that he has not held an unscripted public forum to discuss important issues for nearly 3 1/2 years.

"We have been using social media to coordinate our actions," said Jessica Gaitan, of Price Hill, one of the people who met with Chabot's staff. "We're just trying to get our voices heard."

They also seemed to share opposition to Trump's appointment of Betsy DeVos to become the secretary of education. She was confirmed Feb. 7 after Vice President Mike Pence cast a historic tie-breaking vote in the Senate.

About a block away in the small waiting room of the Walnut Street office of U.S. Senator Rob Portman, R-Ohio, three people talked about their opposition to DeVos and persistent problems in delivering phone messages to Portman. They said they often get a busy signal or a "voicemail box full" message when they dial his number.

Sandra Shirk of West Chester said she had called at least five times to leave a message and had visited Portman's office twice to tell the senator that she thought DeVos was not qualified for the education post. "The staff was just not prepared for the number of people who were unhappy with this appointment," Shirk said.

The nomination of DeVos and Trump's order that temporarily barred citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States were on the mind of Elyse Schenker of Montgomery, a recent graduate of Ohio State who said she encountered plenty of busy signals when she tried to reach Portman, Chabot and U.S. Senator Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, earlier in the week.

Schenker was in the small waiting area of Portman's office Thursday, writing out her comments. She made it clear that she opposed the travel restrictions and the DeVos nomination. Portman, who lives in Terrace Park, had said he would vote for DeVos.

Portman's community outreach representative in the downtown office, Robert Braggs, referred a reporter's questions to Portman's Washington office.

"Rob appreciates the fact that Ohioans regularly reach out to his office to voice their opinions on a variety of issues," press secretary Emily Benavides said in an email. "We value and welcome their input. We have received a higher than normal amount of calls, but that's to be expected when the Senate is considering a new administration's Cabinet nominees. Positive or negative, we provide Rob with reports on what our constituents are calling about."

Just a block away from Portman's office on Vine Street, a staff member for U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown, a Democrat who voted against DeVos, seemed rather lonely in an office that appeared to be quiet and empty.

But that apparently was not the case in Brown's Washington, D.C., office.

"We are receiving a much higher volume of calls than usual, which is why the Senate system is experiencing technical difficulties and why we've taken the extra steps I pointed out on our website to make sure Ohioans can get their messages through," said Jennifer Donohue, a spokeswoman for Brown in the Washington office. "We have received tens of thousands of calls opposing Betsy DeVos for education secretary."

The "extra steps" Donohue referred to were messages on Brown's website about the "extremely high call volume" that has created "technical difficulties" for the Senate's voicemail system. The website notes provide information about steps to take to make sure that the message gets delivered.

While a Washington spokesman for Brown reported a huge volume of calls, a Cincinnati spokesman for the Republican Chabot said the call volume was higher than normal this last week but below the volume of the previous week, which had been Trump's first full week in office.

"The call volume certainly is higher than normal … but when there's a new administration a lot of people call because they are supportive and there are a lot of people who are upset," said Brian Griffith, a spokesman for Chabot in his Carew Tower office.

Griffith acknowledged that opponents of a Trump appointee, a policy or legislation are far more likely to call or email than someone who is supportive.

"But it (public opposition) does spur some people to call and say, 'Hey, I'm supportive of this,' so their voice won't be drowned out," Griffith said.

Chabot's office uses computer software that records the number of calls that come in for "casework" responses, for example a problem with Social Security benefits, while others are categorized as "constituent communications," which might be a caller's comment about an appointee. The software also provides a summary of the subjects of messages that come in.

Griffith said he did not have information available about the number of calls that Chabot has been receiving.

The most frequent topics are travel restrictions, Trump appointments, and Obamacare, Griffith said.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, makes it clear on his website that it's tough to keep up with all of the messages his office receives.

McConnell's site said he welcomes " … your thoughts and concerns and would like to encourage you to share them with me. To send your comments to me via email, simply use the form below.

"Due to the large volume of mail my office receives, please be advised that it may take up to 45 days to receive a response. For urgent matters, press inquiries, and scheduling requests please call my office directly … "

U.S. Rep. Brad Wenstrup, a Cincinnati Republican, and Kentucky Repubicans Paul and U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie, whose district includes Northern Kentucky, did not respond to requests for comment.