Please Hold

Jim BennettEveryone wants to hold Washington accountable, but they don’t realize that the vast majority of elected officials are going to deliberately ignore them. This isn’t a conspiracy or collusion; unfortunately, it’s just the way Washington works.

23 years ago, I was a newly-married guy living in the District of Columbia who had just started work as in intern in the office of Senator Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming.

One of the more glamorous jobs of a Senate intern is answering the phones in the front office. I was given very specific instructions as to how to handle phone calls. Before they launched into whatever tirade they had prepared, I was to ask them their name and where they were calling from. I had a form next to the phone where I wrote down the details of their complaint or question, and if a response was necessary, I’d ask them for their contact information so the office could mail them a reply.

Of course, I was only supposed to write all this down if the person was calling from Wyoming and was one of Al’s constituents. (Sen. Simpson wanted everyone to call him Al, even us lowly interns. This was a bit informal for my father’s staffers, who referred to Dad as “the Senator” and were definitely not on a first name basis.)

“What if they’re calling from, say, Florida?” I asked.

“Don’t write anything down. If it’s not busy, you can listen to them politely until they get whatever it is off their chest,” my supervisor said.

“What if it is busy?”

“Then you say, ‘Please hold,’ and you put them on hold and leave them there until they hang up.”

That struck me as rather cruel, but the intern coordinator shrugged her shoulders. “If they can’t vote for Al,” she said, “then he’s not accountable to them, and he doesn’t care what they think.”

I had my first phone skirmish after Al had been on the floor of the Senate giving a speech about entitlement reform. Al was quite a colorful character, and he had a penchant for referring to the “greedy geezers” of the AARP who opposed any changes to Social Security. Needless to say, those watching CSPAN-2 don’t like to be called “greedy geezers,” and many of them are more than willing to make an angry call to a senator they don’t like.

The first call went something like this.

“Hello, is this Senator Simpson’s office?”

“It is, yes. How can I help you?”

“Well, you can tell your boss that if he’s going to start calling people ‘greedy geezers,’ then he ought to know that this World War II veteran doesn’t take kindly to some rich, out-of-touch Washington hack messing around with my Social Security. And furthermore -”

“I’m sorry,” I said, interrupting, “but where are you calling from?”

“I’m calling from Florida, and I…”

“Please hold,” I said, interrupting again.

I pressed a button, and just like that, the angry voice became one of a series of blinking red lights on my phone console.

After the rush was over, my fellow interns and I watched the series of blinking red lights drop off one by one after all the callers finally lost patience or found something better to watch on television.

I was working on the Hill when Newt Gingrich had just become the first Republican House Speaker in 40 years, and lots of people called asking for the number to his office so they could give him a piece of their mind. I was instructed to give them the number for the Capitol operator. I was assured by my supervisor that if they weren’t from Georgia, or even if they were from Georgia but not from Newt’s district, they, too, would become nothing more than blinking red lights.

All this is pertinent because social media’s filled with  calls to arms to write or call Paul Ryan, or Elizabeth Warren, or Ted Cruz, or whoever else to get them to oppose all or part of the Trump agenda. People need to be warned in advance that whether it’s Ryan, Warren, or Cruz or anyone else in Congress, they’re wasting your time if they're not one of their constituents.

It is true, for instance, that Paul Ryan is Speaker of the House, and that his role as such has an impact on the nation at large. But the nation doesn’t vote for the Speaker; the House does. The only people who actually vote for Paul Ryan live in a congressional district in Wisconsin, and those are the only people Speaker Ryan has to please in order to keep his House seat.

In order to have your voice heard in Washington, you have to have representatives who are more responsive to you than they are to partisan politics or Washington insiders. The bad news is that swamping Paul Ryan with letters isn’t likely to accomplish anything. This is why it’s essential that the people Utah elects care more about Utah than about looking like a rock star within the beltway.

Of course, it’s unlikely that any office you call will tell you this information. If you are not a constituent, the person on the other hand may listen politely if it’s not busy, but they aren’t going to make any note of what you say. If you write him a letter, that letter will be discarded, unopened. Your email will be deleted, unanswered and unread. I was answering phones long before email was a big deal and social media was even a fantasy, but I’m confident that innovations in technology haven’t changed the meaning of “please hold."

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