By Ralph Nader
Most of us play both roles of the Caller and Callee. Guess which role rules? The Callee. I’ve lost count of how many older adults tell me, week after week, how hard it is to get through to powerful Callees. Especially by telephone! The latter include your local electric, gas and telephone company, your bank and insurance company, your members (or their staff) of Congress, your local, state and federal government agencies. It never used to be that way.
Imagine the days when you’d pick up your phone, dial and get through to a human being. You couldn’t be waylaid by the evasive robotic operator who gives you the “press one, or two, or three or four” drill. Unfortunately, when you select “one” you often get another automatic recording. At some point you get a voicemail opportunity which is really voicefail.
Oh, say the younger people – what about trying email or text messaging? Clutter, filters, distractions and sheer overloads can’t adequately describe the ways Callees can keep you from getting through to a human. The more difficult it is, the more people repeat their attempts, and the more overload there is for the digital gatekeepers. Call this the Callees’ power plays.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics measures white-collar labor productivity. If they measured the sheer billions of hours wasted by people trying to get through to do their jobs, white-collar labor productivity would be far lower than its present level.
Here are some areas of abuse. Our Constitution’s First Amendment protects more than freedom of speech, press and religion. It adds the “right to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” “Grievances” include more than personal affronts or injustices, such as petitions to get the government to enact or repeal policies, practices or other behaviors. I am confident in saying that members of Congress and their staff have never been more unresponsive to serious petitions (letters, calls, emails and old-fashioned petitions) on important issues than today.
Their prompt responses are reserved for donors and ceremonial requests (graduations, birthdays, weddings, funerals, and friends). Civic groups supporting a member’s already chosen legislative priorities find their staff have a working relationship with a congressional office. But try to get through to a member of Congress to sponsor a Congressional hearing or expand their portfolio to new urgent arenas – yes, keep trying.
It is near impossible to get through to even friendly members (or senior staffers) of Congress on grave matters of undeclared wars, starving the IRS budget to aid and abet massive tax evasions by the super-rich and big companies, serial lawless rejections of Congressional authority under the Constitution by the White House, or even restoring the staff of Congressional Committees that Newt Gingrich cut in 1995 when he toppled the House Democrats. Non-responses everywhere.
It is so bad that we wrote to every member of Congress and asked them what their office policy toward responding to serious communications was. Only one in 535 offices responded.
Of course, there is the absorbing activity known as “constituent service” – intervening for people back home not getting responses from federal agencies for their personal complaints. Some responsiveness to constituents’ personal stories is widely believed to be good for re-election. (See my column, Does Congress Need an Ombudsman to Look After Its Case Work? https://nader.org/2022/04/30/does-congress-need-an-ombudsman-to-look-after-its-case-work/, published in the Capitol Hill Citizen newspaper – https://www.capitolhillcitizen.com/).
If the Congress in the sixties and seventies was as unresponsive as Congress is today, ironically in the midst of the communications revolution, we couldn’t have gotten the key consumer, environmental, worker safety and health laws, the Freedom of Information Law and other laws enacted. Clearly, if you cannot communicate consistently with the 535 members of Congress and staff, who are given massive sovereign powers by “We the People” (right in the preamble to our Constitution), you cannot even start to get anything done on Capitol Hill.
There is one democracy wrecking exception – corporate lobbyists who grease the system with campaign money and assorted inducements and temptations dangled in real time and in the future. The lobbyists for the oil, gas and coal industries, the banking, insurance and brokerage companies, the military weapons manufacturers, the drug, hospital and nursing home chains, corporate law firms, the corporate media and others of similar avarice do get access. They get the private cellphone numbers of our elected officials, because they invite members and staff to luxurious gatherings and travel junkets, as well as more formal fundraising or Political Action Committee (PAC) venues.
This phenomenon of elected officials being incommunicado toward the civic communities is a controlling process by the powerful over the less powerful. Make no mistake. This same tale of two systems of access is everywhere. Big banks (Bank of America is one of the worst) and utility companies have algorithms that tell them how they can hire fewer workers for customer service if they can make consumers wait on recorded lines, or fail to answer emails and letters. The big companies want customers to just give up.
The courts are culpable as well. People have complained about not being able even to get through to Small Claims Court for hours at a time. The Postal Service is not known for quick telephone pickups, still under control of Trump’s nominee Louis DeJoy. Not to mention what the GOP did to the IRS ordinary taxpayer response budget.
But some companies are a bit more responsive such as FedEx or your local small retail family-owned business.
The lack of access is a serious problem that degrades quality of life with heightened stress and anxiety. And in some cases, during an emergency or disaster, the lack of a response can have dire consequences.
Fifty billion robocalls a year have disrupted seriously people answering their telephones, even from neighbors down the street. (The FCC and FTC just are not aggressively pressuring the communications companies to use the latest software to thwart these robocall outlaws). These agencies themselves are notoriously incommunicado.
What do to? Be more vociferous. Favor politicians and merchants who pledge to have humans answer phones and not make you wait, wait, and wait to give them your thoughts, your business and your complaints.
Your suggestions, readers, will be most welcome.