With Call to Action, Obama Brings Down the House

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Congressional servers crashed and phone lines were overloaded, thanks to an outpouring of response to the president -- and a fragile tech infrastructure

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Americans interested in responding posthaste to President Obama's primetime call Monday to "make your voice heard" on the debt ceiling debate risked disappointment, as the power of the bully pulpit met a federal communications infrastructure that's long struggled to keep pace. The Capitol Switchboard rang and rang, and scores of congressional websites crashed last night following Obama's speech and the televised response from House Speaker John Boehner.

Sites crashed seemingly without regard to party or leadership status. Republican Speaker Boehner's site went down, as did those of Senator Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), House Energy and Commerce ranking member Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and rank-and-file Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.). But Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's site stayed up, as did Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's, and House Oversight chair Darrell Issa's. "If you want a balanced approach to reducing the deficit, let your member of Congress know," encouraged Obama. "If you believe we can solve this problem through compromise, send that message." For his part, Boehner dismissed Obama's "balanced approach" as Washington-speak for "we spend more, you pay more."

Asked this morning if a wave of traffic in the wake the president's call to action brought the congressional sites crashing down, Dan Weiser, the communications director of the House's Chief Administrative Officer, said, "I think that's fair to say." House officials also reported that it was the "sites hosted by outside vendors," an alternative to the in-House hosting available to member offices, that experienced service degradation so extreme it made them impossible to use. Delaware Democratic Sen. Chris Coons tweeted that his website was "struggling," but that he was listening through Twitter. An email sent to Hill staffers by House officials today reported that the main congressional phone lines are "near capacity resulting in outside callers occasionally getting busy signals." There was also some amount of user error at work. "Somehow my cell got listed for Sen Shelby's office," tweeted CBS's Christine Delargy, as noted by Fishbowl DC. "Ringing off hook since Obama's address. In case you were wondering if it'd have any impact." (Senate administrative officials have not yet returned a request for comment.)

As president, Obama has been criticized by many for failing to harness and deploy the interest and passions of his supporters to create substantive legislative change in the same way he marshaled those resources during the 2008 campaign. As a result, last night's exhortation to the masses was particularly striking. "I don't know that the president says that often, 'Go contact Congress,'" says Marci Harris, a veteran of the health care debates as a Democratic staffer in the House who is working to building an online constituent communications tools called PopVox. "That was a pretty direct call to action."

There was, unsurprisingly, a debate-within-a-debate about just who prompted the tsunami of attention that fell upon Capitol Hill. Don Seymour is the communications director for Speaker Boehner. While deferring to the House's administrative officials on the technology of the communications breakdown, Seymour assessed that "judging by the tens of thousands of calls and emails we get on an daily basis, it probably has something to do with the large number of Americans speaking out for real spending cuts and reforms, and against the president's demand for tax hikes."

Either way, how impressive a feat is crashing Congress?

Not as impressive as you might think, as it turns out. Capitol Hill is a poorly-calibrated citizen-interest capturing mechanism, and has struggled in the past with its dated and often fragile infrastructure. In September, Lady Gaga found herself stymied by full voicemail boxes when she called her New York senators as part of an online campaign to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." At the time, Senate CIO Kim Winn told me that upgrading the Senate voicemail system hadn't been a priority, and mailboxes maxed out at just 200 or so messages. "The speculation for a number of years is that people would stop calling," said Winn at the time. "They'd email, they'd go online." These are challenges familiar to Obama. In the spring, the president was overheard at a fundraiser complaining that federal IT was "horrible." Instead of the state-of-the-art communications technologies he expected would be his as president of the United States, "we can't get our phones to work," he said.

Hill infrastructure is also susceptible to malicious attacks. The hacking collective Anonymous briefly brought down independent Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman's site as punishment for his stance on Wikileaks, and more recently the group LulzSec engaged in a "just-for-kicks release of some internal data from Senate.gov."

While House and Senate IT infrastructures are two independent systems serving their own separate fiefdoms, both experienced major failures last night. Some sites were completely unresponsive. Other were unable to connect to the databases that power advanced sites. "Bad Request (Invalid Hostname)" was the message returned by Boehner's site. By midnight, all Senate sites were back online, save that of Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). Many House sites are back up, but full access hasn't been restored. The link to Boehner's speech text by mid-morning still returned an error reading "Server is too busy."

Leaving aside the U.S. Congress's inadequacy when it comes to handling the public's attention, some see real progress in Obama's bothering to rally the public to action at all. Ari Melber is a correspondent for The Nation who has been critical about how Obama used -- or failed to use -- his Organizing for America group. "OFA struggled to use Obama directly, which is understandable since he had a full time job," said Melber in an email. "This direct ask shows how motivating it can be when politicians make genuine appeals for activism, even if the goal is moving recalcitrant opponents. Some operatives worry this kind of thing is 'beneath' a president, but done right, it makes him look powerful and, as important, invites people to wield their own power along the way."

But the Progressive Change Campaign Committee's Adam Green cautions that we shouldn't be so quick to see a validation of Obama or his call for "compromise" in the flood of calls, emails, and website visits to Capitol Hill. Americans aren't moved to act by process, said Green, adding sarcastically: "I'm sure grandmas on Social Security were calling Democrats to say 'compromise' just like the president asked. President Obama understands that compromise really arouses passion in people -- more so than finding a job or protecting their family's Social Security benefits. He hit it out of the ballpark."

With so many websites down and phone lines jammed, though, it's difficult to know just what people want their Congress to hear.

Image credit: David Beard/National Journal

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Nancy Scola is a writer based in New York. She has written for New York, Salon, and Seed, and is a frequent contributor to The American Prospect.

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