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.