Week 6: The One Where Phoebe Hates PBS

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Monday, July 11, 2022


Aidan Keaveney

Hi y’all! Last week’s blog was a real bummer, so as a palette cleanser, this week I’m going to talk about the phone calls we receive in Congressman Foster’s office. Over the next three blogs, I will go into more detail about my three chief responsibilities as an intern in order of priority: phone calls, memos, and constituent letters. 


The hardest job in any congressional office is the Member of Congress, there’s no doubt about that. That said, there is an argument to be made that the second hardest job in any congressional office is the intern, because we have to talk to you people on the phone. You people are crazy. 


Of course, I’m kidding, but I mean it when I say that apart from everything I talked about in last week’s blog, answering the phones is the hardest part of my job. There are a few archetypical phone calls that we get, and I’ll try to describe each of them as best I can with a few examples. These categories will be imperfect, but hopefully you’ll get a sense of what it’s like to be the first point of contact for our constituents and various other stakeholders in a congressional office. 


The first archetype is the cattle egret. Cattle egrets are herons that feed off of the insects that the cattle stir up while grazing. When the egrets aren’t feeding, they hop on the backs of the cattle for a free ride. They’re very light, so they don’t impede the movement of the cow or horse, but they benefit from the cattle’s ability to release the various types of food the egret needs. In our office, we get several calls a day from lobbyists or other congressional offices asking for the contact information of the staffer who works on their favorite policy issue. We can provide what they need, and these calls are very short and simple. I can be helpful without too much effort. Hence, I am the cow, and the caller is the egret. 


The second archetype is the tourist. I don’t have a clever animal analogy here, they just want a tour of the Capitol building or the White House. I just take their information and our legislative assistant for constituent relations will try to reserve them a tour if there is a slot available. These are also fairly easy; it’s always nice to actually be able to help a constituent with what they ask for. As you’ll soon see, that’s most certainly not a given. 


Another archetype is the enriched astrophage of Andy Weir’s novel Project Hail Mary. In this book, Weir imagines a single-celled organism that gets energy from high temperatures (i.e. stars), and reproduces in the presence of carbon dioxide. An astrophage that has all of the energy it needs from a star, a so-called “enriched” astrophage, then needs to look for the telltale emission wavelengths of carbon dioxide. Since it is usually in the presence of too much light to resolve these emission wavelengths, it first follows a magnetic field away from the light, then once it sees carbon dioxide (i.e. Venus), it makes a beeline straight there. This type of caller is someone who needs something from our District office (i.e. immigration casework, IRS tax refunds, passport appointments, etc.), but doesn’t know who to talk to or where to find the right contact information. So, they wander generally in the direction of Congressman Foster, and eventually reach me on the phone. After that, I give them the phone number for the District office, and they make a beeline there to get their problem solved. These are also fairly easy. 


There are two more typical callers that we get in our office. Of course, my experience is limited, so I’m certain these last two don’t describe every caller in every office, but these two describe most of the constituents I spoke to this summer. The first is the vervet monkey. Vervet monkeys will sound an alarm call in the presence of a predator, but are typically docile and won’t engage if it doesn’t have to. I am referring here to constituents who have a concern about a piece of legislation or an action, and are simply voicing their concerns to their representative in Congress. They’re not hostile or angry in any way, they just want the Congressman to know where they stand on the issue, and hope that he will take their concerns into account in his public statements, votes in Congress, etc. Most constituents who are likely to vote for Congressman Foster (i.e. Democrats and other progressives) fall into this category, but we also get a lot of conservative vervet monkeys as well. Examples of this type of caller include “please vote Yes/No on H.R.1808, the Assault Weapons Ban” and “please tell Congressman Foster to work with Senate colleagues to pass climate change legislation”. These calls are not difficult, per se, and certainly not as difficult as the last category, but they are also not easy. I often find myself saying things like “I’ll make sure the Congressman gets your message”, or “please know that the Congressman takes your concerns very seriously”. It’s not that these statements are untrue, but they do feel misleading sometimes. 


When I get calls like this, my job is to take down the caller’s contact information and the nature of their concerns, then put that information into a database where we collect all of our constituent correspondence. After that, I don’t really know what happens to it. Eventually it will be lumped in with emails, faxes, and phone calls about similar issues, and we will send out a constituent letter detailing the Congressman’s view on that particular issue and the various actions that he has taken. I’m not sure that the Congressman ever actually sees or hears about the opinions expressed, apart from an aggregate summary given at each staff meeting by the legislative assistant responsible for constituent correspondence. It is highly unlikely that a constituent will individually influence the Congressman’s position or action in a meaningful way unless they are a part of a massive grassroots campaign that gets the attention of our staff or the Congressman, especially if the individual disagrees with the Congressman’s stated position. To be clear, that is nothing against Congressman Foster. Our office gets about 1500 incoming correspondence every week. It’s unreasonable to expect that Congressman Foster would be able to hear every constituent concern, and it’s probably even a good thing that one constituent can’t influence their Congressman when there are almost 700,000 other constituents to consider. None of what I just said should be construed as a statement of quality about Congressman Foster or our office’s handling of constituent correspondence, I tend to think we do an okay job all things considered. It’s just the nature of the thing that most vervet monkeys will only have an impact if they are a member of a large troop. 


That said, vervet monkeys are far more likely to have an impact than the last archetype: dolphins. Dolphins are highly intelligent jerks. Dolphins have been known to use baby sharks as a volleyball. They hunt in rigorously coordinated and creative packs so that nothing can escape. They kill the children of other species, and even their own species. Worst of all, dolphins can go for five days without sleeping and lose no mental acuity. Don’t even get me started on their various problematic mating habits. If you’ll forgive the strong imagery, I am referring to callers who are typically hostile, talk for long periods of time, call very often, insult who they are speaking to, and are generally mean all the way through. These are not things I say lightly; I really try to find nice things to say about these callers, and I will later. Generally speaking though, these callers are the most difficult to deal with, the most emotionally draining, the most time consuming, and the least likely to get their opinion heard by the Congressman or any staff member other than an intern. In my experience, dolphins are almost always conservative, though I suspect Republican offices often get liberal dolphins too. Here are a few examples of actually dolphin callers I’ve spoken with this summer:

  • “Tell Foster to stop smoking Hunter Biden’s crack”

  • “You’re a piece of s***, you f***ing fa**ot.”

  • “While you and Congressman Foster are off murdering babies and shipping immigrants into our cities, real Americans are paying $5 a gallon for gas”

  • “If Biden is willing to ship ‘illegals’ out of central America fleeing gang violence, why isn’t he willing to ship Black people out of Chicago?”

  • “Did you hear about the insurrection Stephen Colbert’s staff committed in the Capitol last week?”

  • “I watched some of the sham Stalinist kangaroo court the January 6 committee put on last night…”

You get the idea. As much as I try not to let these callers affect me, and as much as I know their goal is at least in part to make my life difficult, I do find it very challenging to speak with these callers. Sure, part of it is that they disagree with me and Congressman Foster; that is admittedly difficult at times, but that’s not the problem for me. The problem for me is that I genuinely want to hear from these constituents. As I said before, these constituents are often highly intelligent, incredibly persistent, and genuinely disillusioned from the political process. I want to hear from them. I want to know what they believe, what they are concerned about, and why they think we aren’t doing anything or enough to help them. More often than not, I generally think we do care about their concerns and work hard to address them. I work really hard to understand the issues that are affecting dolphins and respect dolphins enough to give them an opportunity to impact me. Hard as it is, every time I pick up the phone, I try to give the person on the other end an opportunity to affect me, because I believe that makes me and the world a better place. For the most part, dolphins take that opportunity and pass it back and forth like a volleyball. That is what I find so difficult about answering phone calls. 


I like to believe that every person who calls our office has a legitimate reason to do so, and they are looking for us to serve their needs. By opening myself up to what they have to say, particularly in the cases of vervet monkeys and dolphins, I am hearing directly about the issues troubling our constituents, the challenges and tragedies they face daily. Afterwards, I write down what they said to me in a database, and it goes off into the ether somewhere. Like I said, I know it’s probably the best system possible, and everyone in our office works really hard to listen to and serve our constituents as best we know how. But when I tell a constituent “I’ll make sure the Congressman gets your message” or write in a constituent letter “Please know that I will keep your thoughts in mind”, it feels disingenuous to me. I’ll talk more about that when I talk about constituent letters. So that is why I believe the second hardest job in our office is the intern.


Don’t get me wrong, I genuinely enjoy my job, and I am so thankful to Congressman Foster and SPS for making this summer possible. This experience has been amazing, and I am so so so happy I’ve gotten to do everything that I’ve gotten to do this summer. I am just also trying to be honest about the challenges it has posed. 


Aidan Keaveney