With Call to Action, Obama Brings Down the House

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?

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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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