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Phone Calls Continue to Batter Congress

Members continued to be inundated with phone calls from constituents and interest groups Friday thanks to an impending vote on health care reform this weekend.

Calls to the House numbered close to 100,000 an hour, creating a bottleneck in a phone system only meant to handle 50,000 calls an hour. The chamber has been similarly overloaded for four consecutive days, beginning on Tuesday when radio host Rush Limbaugh told viewers to call the Capitol switchboard phone number.

Jeff Ventura, spokesman for Chief Administrative Officer Dan Beard, said the problem was essentially unsolvable. The issue lies with the capacity of the cables buried underneath the Capitol complex — and even if those could be dug up and replaced, Members simply don’t have enough staff to answer so many calls, he said.

“Our capacity rate is about 50,000 calls an hour, and once we hit the 40,000 mark, we start to get these signals,” he said. “We’re beyond that. There’s no other way to say it other than the system is at capacity.”

Officials expect calls to taper off after the House’s scheduled Sunday vote on the health care reform package. But Ventura emphasized that the system for staffers’ BlackBerrys and smartphones was running smoothly.

“It’s not like Congress has come to a communication standstill,” he said.

This isn’t the first time Congress has been overcome with phone calls and e-mails in the runup to an important vote. Interest in the 2008 stimulus bill crashed and some Member Web sites, and in November, the Senate’s voice mail system was overloaded before the chamber’s cloture vote on health care reform legislation.

“It’s hard to predict the interest in this kind of legislation,” Ventura said. “I mean it’s historic. Here you have piece of legislation that is so defining, it’s just causing massive interest.”

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