Onslaught of Calls Jams Switchboard

Posted March 19, 2010 at 5:39pm

House phone lines were jammed to the point of failure all last week over health care reform, and the Senate might be in for the same fate.

As a result, the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Office, which manages the chamber’s phone system, is preparing for an unusually large telecommunications onslaught if and when Senators start debate on a reconciliation package, an office employee said.

The Capitol switchboard was hit with about 100,000 calls an hour starting Tuesday afternoon, when Rush Limbaugh gave out the switchboard number on the air during his popular radio show and encouraged listeners to call and oppose the House bill.

But the phone system can only handle about half of that, so the remaining callers have been getting busy signals, said Jeff Ventura, spokesman for Chief Administrative Officer Dan Beard. The busy signals were still occurring as late as Friday afternoon, and Ventura said it wouldn’t cease until the House voted on the bill.

“The Senate already understands the environment because they share the switchboard with us,” Ventura said. “Expect a higher call volume and expect to be able to deal with that.”

Phone calls to district offices of Democratic Senators who are considered swing votes on health care reform, such as Sens. Ben Nelson (Neb.) and Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), already yield what seems like endless ringing, calls being forwarded to voice mail or, in some cases, no answer at all. But the lines were not afflicted by the busy signals that characterized last week’s attempts to reach House Members.

That may quickly change today.

GOP Members were encouraging the outpouring of phone calls, reasoning that it gives credence to their opposition of the reform bill.

Rep. Bob Latta (R-Ohio), for instance, on Friday posted a Roll Call story about phones being jammed with the commentary, “Capitol Hill Inundated with Calls: KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK!” on his personal profile on Amplify.com, a social networking site.

An employee in the office of Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer said the office is preparing for more calls by placing more staffers at the switchboard.

“We are preparing as we normally do when there is the likelihood of a large number of calls,” said the employee, who was not authorized to speak on the record.