In a nation of disenfranchised voters and apathetic citizens, one might wonder what it would take to get laymen to start participating in the political process. It turns out it takes $1.2 trillion in debt and the threat of higher interest rates on mortgages, student loans, and credit cards. As Congress practiced politicking and rhetoric in their supposed quest to solve the debt crisis, millions around the country became fed up with Washington’s ways. None was more vocal about it than the nation’s president.
In a televised speech on Monday, July 25, 2011, President Obama urged Americans to become more active in the political process. “The American people,” Obama said, “may have voted for divided government, but they didn't vote for a dysfunctional government.” He went on to plead, “I'm asking you all to make your voice heard. If you want a balanced approach to reducing the deficit, let your member of Congress know. If you believe we can solve this problem through compromise, send that message.” The people listened.
Reports showed a flooding of call centers and websites. Two days after the president’s address, theWHIR.com, a web hosting directory, reported that, “[t]he websites of various Congress members crashed Tuesday after their servers were flooded by traffic from Americans concerned about the nation's debt limit.” Similar reports from The Boston Globe revealed that phone lines were busy and web sites were down.
One online congressional directory, ContactingtheCongress.org, showed massive spikes in traffic. Administrator Juan Cabenela blogged on July 27th, “[y]ou can see the spike in traffic start on Monday, July 25. Yesterday, we had 34,165 unique visitors, an 1100% increase over the average!” His web server data shows that traffic spiked during and immediately following the president’s address.
ContactingtheCongress.org is a directory of all available phone numbers and email addresses for current members of Congress. Visitors can simply click on their state and list of contact info for all reps appears. Cabenela says his mission is for “you [to] use this information to counter-act some of the idiocy going on in Washington, whatever you consider ‘idiocy’ to be.” He developed the site in the mid ‘90s when he wanted to contact congress and didn’t know where to begin.
Since then, sites similar to Cabenela’s have developed. Persons wanting to contact their elected officials can use sites such as www.usa.gov/Contact/Elected.shtml or www.writerep.house.gov. Those that know their representative’s names can usually find contact information through Google, Facebook or Twitter as well. As Mr. Obama reminded us last week, all Americans should be obtaining this information and reaching out. Cabenela states that “every fax or voice call is interpreted by your congressmember as equal to the opinion of many more constituents who don't call.”
Mr. Obama’s plea should not be written off as mere bully pulpiting, but should act as a jolt to American taxpayers. When faced with the question, “when was the last time you called your elected official?,” many disenfranchised people became uncomfortable. A UMASS Boston student said, “I think I called once a long time ago, like, beginning of college, over some environmental thing, but I mostly believe my politics are too fringe to sound like anything other than a crazy person.” A bartender from Jamaica Plain, MA said he never had. When asked why, he simply stated, “look at me,” implying he was not intelligent enough to be involved. A Winthrop, MA financial advisor stated that she had only called once in the last few years, “to request that they didn’t shut off funding for NPR.”
While an embattled congress wasted weeks volleying a compromise on the debt ceiling debate, a problem created largely by their politicking, the economy continued to suffer. Millions remain on unemployment, and the July job creation report was more than half the projected growth for the month. Under-educated, shy, or disenfranchised, Americans need to start becoming involved. One Jamaica Plain student states, “to the people who think they don't know enough, they're probably right. But it takes about twenty minutes to catch up [via Wikipedia and Google], and that's if you're fact checking with multiple sources. This is supposed to be somewhat of a representative democracy, and the [elected officials] on capital hill are supposed to listen to our opinions.”
One Marshfield woman, a mental health patient on disability, said, “I was given all the info needed to call my rep to ensure financing of the different groups that provide support for people with mental illness. But I didn't get around to it.” People like this need to heed the president’s advice. Constituent opinions are never irrelevant, and our elected officials will never down someone who reaches out to them.