(Adds quote to 22nd paragraph. An earlier version corrected DeGette’s leadership status and the number of virtual town halls she held.)
Capitol Hill staffers received an unusual notice for a stress management webinar this week to help them cope with the crush of calls, emails and letters on the coronavirus.
The session highlighted that congressional offices are on the front lines as Americans seek help in dealing with the pandemic’s economic and health fallout.
Constituents are flooding lawmakers’ offices with requests for help with issues including unemployment claims, stimulus checks and small business aid. Many lawmakers also had to help stranded constituents return home from overseas because of the travel disruptions caused by the crisis.
“There is no precedent for the outreach of constituents to their members of Congress in terms of both the intensity, the emotion, and the volume,” said Brad Fitch, president of the Congressional Management Foundation and a former congressional aide. “Some of these offices are dealing with four to five times the volume. One office we deal with got creative and basically turned all of their staffers into customer service representatives.”
The pressure to respond to these urgent needs has taken its toll on staff.
“Many House offices have become inundated with constituent calls that are often tinged with stress, anxiety, fear, and grief,” the House Office of Employee Assistance said in announcing the stress management sessions.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said calls from his constituents doubled after Congress passed the CARES Act (Public Law 116-123), a virus relief measure, at the end of March, and that agencies such as the IRS and the Small Business Administration were unable to keep up with public demands for help.
Hoyer joined other lawmakers in both parties who set up virtual meetings with constituents to help them get through the crisis. He reached over 10,000 people during each of his three telephone townhalls this spring, according to the leader’s office.
Lawmakers are “working around the clock, communicating ‘round the clock” to respond to the crisis, Hoyer said on the House floor amid criticisms he won’t call members back for votes until June 30.
“I think we do a disservice to our members and to this institution if we go home and pretend that somehow members aren’t working because they’re not physically in this room,” Hoyer said.
Congress anticipated some of the extra work and inserted into the CARES package an extra $93.1 million in emergency funds for congressional offices, including $25 million to support the ability of House members to telework and $10 million to help cover the Senate’s telework costs. Aides in both chambers said they had to almost immediately purchase laptops on the commercial market before their offices could work effectively away from the Capitol.
The next recovery package, or the Legislative Branch spending bill for fiscal 2021 that may move in the House in July, could become vehicles for more funds.
‘All Hands on Deck’
Brooke Bennett, chief of staff for Rep. French Hill (R-Ark.), said an “all hands on deck” response was necessary to deal with a tripling in constituent contacts.
“We had our legislative staff helping out with our traditional casework staff,” she said at a recent event sponsored by the Congressional Management Foundation.
Many members’ offices and committees put on hold work on traditional must-dos, such as the annual appropriations bills and the defense authorization bill, which typically move in the spring. While work on those measures is beginning to gain momentum again, not all offices are geared up for those debates, Bennett said.
Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) said she heard from and responded to 50,000 constituents from her Denver district in the first 50 days after her office shifted to remote work in mid-March. In addition to 3,000 calls, she said she received more than 47,000 letters and emails — a roughly 450% increase from the numbers seen during a 50-day period earlier this year.
More than 17,000 constituents participated in town halls during the same period, her office said. The two events attracted between 8,000 and 9,000 people on each, it said.
“In her 20-plus years in Congress, this was the highest level of engagement Congresswoman DeGette had ever seen,” spokesman Danielle Cohen said.
The situation has been much the same in the Senate where the office of Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) saw a marked boost in email and opened 550 new cases for constituents so far this year compared to 70 new cases during the same period in 2019.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who is running for a second term, reported the number of emails rose to 242,606 between mid-March and end of May, compared to 46,166 during the same period last year.
House freshmen also have been swamped with constituent work. The office of Rep. Joe Neguse(D-Colo.) said the 44,000 emails he received this spring represent a doubling of what he saw during the same period last year.
Fitch said that in many ways the pandemic has revealed the best in public service. “But it’s also created a new era of extraordinary strain,” he said. “Both in terms of the quantity of the work but also because of the amazingly emotional nature of the work.”
Despite the increased opportunity for interaction during the election year, Fitch said any political benefit for incumbents taking on the extra work is limited.
“Casework has never been a real political winner from an investment stand point,” Fitch said. “But sometimes members do turn these into really compelling campaign ads.”
Susan Wheeler, chief of staff for Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), said there have been unforeseen rewards, however, in helping constituents with the unemployment payments or small business loans.
“It’s almost instant,” Wheeler said at the event sponsored by the Congressional Management Foundation. “There’s a lot more immediate reward for a job well done than there normally is.”
Wheeler said that before her office could telework she had to send staff to Best Buy to buy laptops because the Senate didn’t have them on hand and some people just used iPhones to conduct work until they could get more.
Despite the shift from postal mail to email, Hill’s office still prioritized answering the old-fashioned telephone that serves as a lifeline when no one could get through to federal agencies.
“Just that little bit of having a human at the other end of the phone to answer your questions when you are in a distressed situation has been enormous,” Bennett said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Nancy Ognanovich in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org