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Phones swamped, servers crash as voters slam Congress

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Citizen outrage towards Capitol Hill
  • President Obama on Monday night asks Americans to call their member of Congress
  • Since that call, House offices have seen a surge in phone calls and e-mails
  • More than 100 congressional websites were down or had slow connections on Tuesday

Washington (CNN) -- House switchboards have been flooded by phone calls -- nearly twice the normal average -- and hit with an unusual volume of constituent e-mails as voters voice their concern over the worsening debt-ceiling crisis.

At least 104 of 279 congressional websites surveyed by CNN were down or had experienced slow connections on Tuesday, after President Obama's speech Monday night.

House Speaker John Boehner's website responded with a "Server Too Busy" or "Bad Request (Invalid Hostname)" message during parts of the day. His switchboard reported as many as 150-300 callers on hold, wanting to leave their thoughts for the speaker. The average hold time was about 50 minutes, officials said.

In his address to the nation, Obama called on the American people to "make your voice heard."

"If you want a balanced approach to reducing the deficit, let your member of Congress know," he said. "If you believe we can solve this problem through compromise, send that message."

Kyle Anderson, Democratic communications director for the House Administration Committee, said the deluge of calls and e-mails from Americans underlines "the seriousness of default."

"These are the people with Social Security and Medicare benefits at stake, individuals with pensions and retirement accounts invested in the financial markets and business owners whose continued existence is based upon their ability to access capital markets at reasonable interest rates," said Anderson. "Their message, and sense of urgency, are clear."

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The House's call center Tuesday confirmed the high volume of calls, saying in an e-mail that "House telephone circuits serving 202-225-XXXX phone numbers are near capacity, resulting in outside callers occasionally getting busy signals."

"Offices have been advised to utilize alternate extensions when possible," said Salley Wood, communications director for the House Administration Committee, which handles day-to-day operations in members' offices on Capitol Hill.

The e-mail recommended that offices provide district staff with alternate phone numbers for constituents to reach staff in Washington. House offices are also receiving a flood of e-mails, and a number of websites were down or experiencing slow connections as of late Tuesday morning.

The White House, meanwhile, didn't release specific numbers, but said it had seen a significant increase in traffic on social media -- Twitter and Facebook -- after the president's speech. It has also launched an online initiative called "White House Office Hours" to field additional questions and comments, where members of the public are encouraged to use the hashtag #WHChat on Twitter to "ask administration officials your questions on President Obama's speech and the ongoing deficit debate."

Of 279 members' websites CNN surveyed Tuesday afternoon, 83 out of 172 GOP websites were not working, and 21 out of 107 Democratic websites were not working. Others reported intermittent connections.

Democratic Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, had 600 calls and 1,000 e-mails Monday night after the president's speech, said Brenda Jones, his communications director. Jones said roughly 60% are saying they want a shared sacrifice and a balanced approach and about 30% are saying do not touch entitlements. A small percentage, about 10%, are saying don't raise taxes, Jones said.

Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin, reported "much heavier phone traffic" than usual on Tuesday, according to press secretary Jerilyn Goodman. "A majority are supporting the president," she said. "They're also saying that both sides should compromise. We need to have a balanced approach. We also got a lot of comments on our Facebook page."

Tom Andrews, who works in a call center in the attic above Boehner's office, told CNN on Tuesday that phone calls tend to pick up around lunchtime, and the average wait time had been around 50 minutes.

Callers have been saying, "Stand strong and do what you're doing," Andrews said.

According to a report on the calls compiled for the speaker's office and released Monday:

-- "Two-thirds of calls are supportive (of Boehner's plan).

-- "There has been an increase in calls (mostly liberal activist types) condemning us for walking out of the talks and 'ignoring' the president's phone call.

-- "Tea partiers are adamant about making immediate cuts rather than long-term cuts.

-- "Liberal activists are using same talking points to criticize us (putting our debt on the backs of middle class, for the 'millionaires', etc.).

-- "Elderly and liberal activists still say we are 'cutting' or 'ending' Social Security and Medicare.

-- "A lot more calls today asking us to reach an agreement.

-- "This afternoon, a lot of callers asking us to stick to the elements of cut, cap and balance. That should be the plan forward.

-- "Call volume: 40-60 people on hold throughout the entire day. Over 20,000 voice mails left."

Rep. Michael Grimm, R-New York, has received 300 e-mails since Monday night, and his office phones have been ringing all morning, said his spokesman, Carol Danko.

"Definitely saw a spike since last night," Danko said.

Matt McCullough, a spokesman for Rep. Steve Southerland, a freshman Republican from Florida, said Southerland's office had received 300 calls so far and more than 1,000 e-mails.

"It's all-hands-on-deck on days like this," he said.

The calls have been "rather split," he said. Half are saying they agree with the president; the other half are "more entrenched than ever" on cut, cap, and balance, which the congressman supported.

Bradford Fitch of the Congressional Management Foundation, which has helped members of Congress with constituent outreach, told C-Span Tuesday morning that social media has allowed for greater access to members of Congress.

But it has come with a price. The burden for staffers has become more intense then ever, he said, citing a rise in social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter while staffing levels remain the same.

Staffers are "working very, very hard," Fitch said. "They're working 60 hours a week and often on the weekends to respond to these communications. They're trying to match up that communication that comes in from a constituent ... and try and be as responsive to the constituent as best they can given the demands and the volumes that are coming in."

This isn't the first time Congress' phone lines and e-mail accounts have been flooded with a mix of anger, frustration and support. During the contentious health care reform bill negotiations last year, the volume increased and staffers simply could not keep up.

On March 16, 2010, House phone lines neared capacity, with nearly 50,000 calls a day, after conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh called on his listeners to protest health care reform legislation.

In 2009, the debate over Obama's economic stimulus plan, which was later signed into law, also drove voters to call in.

CNN's Lisa Dejardins, Ed Hornick, Ashley Killough, Alexander Mooney, Gabriella Schwarz and Deirdre Walsh contributed to this report.