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Obama’s Request Overloads Websites

Subpanel Considers Hearings on Crashes

A day after President Barack Obama urged Americans in a prime-time television address to tell Congress to raise the debt ceiling, the House received as many as 35,000 phone calls per hour and enough Web hits to overwhelm a popular Web-hosting vendor.

The chairman of the House Administration Subcommittee on Oversight, whose personal website was among those shut down, said he is considering holding hearings on ways to prevent the phone and Web systems from crashing in the future.

The subcommittee might “try to get some experts to come in and say, ‘Well is it a problem?'” Chairman Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) said. “Was it just some glitch that a little tweak that costs virtually nothing can be put in place so it doesn’t happen again? Or if it’s going to be a huge revamp, how much money will it cost and can we justify that?”

House Administration ranking member Robert Brady (D-Pa.) blamed the outage on Republican attempts to slash the budget of the Chief Administrative Office, which handles the House switchboard. The office stands to lose $11 million this year.

Similar outages occurred during the debate over health care reform in March 2010, when conservative radio personality Rush Limbaugh gave out the Capitol switchboard number on the air. The House received about 40,000 calls per hour at the time.

The call volume Tuesday did not reach that high, but at its peak, it still was almost twice the normal amount of 20,000 calls per hour, said Dan Weiser, spokesman for the House Chief Administrative Officer.

Rep. Robert Aderholt, the former ranking member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch, said the House should try to find some money to increase the system’s capacity.

“Maybe you have to consider getting a bigger system,” the Alabama Republican said. “We’ve got to make sure people can call up here.”

While the phone system is hosted in-house, websites are maintained by several outside vendors. According to sources, the bulk of the Web issues centered around one of those: Fireside21, a Washington, D.C.-based Web-hosting firm geared toward lawmakers and run by a former staffer to ex-Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.).

By midday, dozens of sites hosted by the company were still down. Those include the personal office websites of several powerful Republicans, such as Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) and presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.). Several Democratic sites were down as well.

Most of those sites redirected to a “site unavailable” message on the server.

“The site you requested is currently unavailable,” the message read. “Please visit the Clerk of the House to find your Representative’s or a committee’s contact information.”

A woman answering phones at Fireside21 said nobody was available to comment.

Gingrey indicated that he would like to examine how one vendor can cause so many outages across Capitol Hill.

“If one vendor can slam it down when our poor constituents desperately want to weigh in … we need to know that,” he said.

The outages could cost the company clients on the Hill. A spokesman for Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.) said he is not planning to switch vendors but is concerned by the outage.

“They have been great to us,” spokesman Fred Piccolo said. “But if it stays down, that would obviously be a real problem.”

Correction: July 28, 2011

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the vendor that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) uses to host his personal website. His website is hosted directly by the House.

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