Congressional offices on the frontlines

Executive orders. Immigration bans. Mass protests. The repeal of the Affordable Care Act — maybe. Nonstop presidential tweeting.

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In only three weeks, the Trump administration has injected an unprecedented level of chaos, confusion and controversy into American politics.  I know I speak for all journalists when I say we are scrambling to keep up.

But enough about us. What about U.S. congressional staffers? How do they keep up?

Consider, for example, that Sen. Ron Wyden received 14,000 emails over the course of a few weeks from constituents concerned about Betsy DeVos’ qualifications for Education Secretary. “That is the quantity of mail I would normally receive over 4 months on all subjects,” Wyden wrote on Medium earlier this week.

Hearing from and responding to constituents is one of the most important things a member of Congress can do.  But what happens to the congressional staff workload during a period of Great Civic Awakening? 

“Staffers in Washington D.C. and in his offices in Portland, Salem, Eugene, Medford, Bend and La Grande are working hard to keep up,” said Wyden spokesperson Hank Stern in an email.

In addition to the Betsy DeVos email, general incoming mail is up 1,000% since before the election, Stern said. “Each one of these letters requires reading and sorting and replies. So yes, the workload is increased.”

Stern said he was fielding more inquiries from Oregon reporters asking for responses to the Trump’s administration’s actions. Wyden’s office has also boosted staff at the Senator’s town halls in response to record turnouts. 

Nicole L’Esperance, a spokesperson for Rep. Earl Blumenauer, said the the volume of phone calls, letters and emails from constinuents concerned about Trump increased immediately after the election — and has continued to be high. 

“Keeping on top of it all is requiring more staff time, but it’s been great to see so many folks at home engaged and eager to help,” L’Esperance said.

Martina McLennan, a spokesperson for Sen. Jeff Merkley, said his office has seen an unprecedented outpouring of Oregonians wanting to express their views about Trump’s policies.

“Typically, our office receives fewer than 100 calls per day, so it sends a huge message when we see thousands upon thousands of Oregonians reaching out to our office to express their views about the cabinet nominations and policy positions that are being considered by the new administration,” McLennan said.

Rep. Greg Walden, the lone Republican in Oregon’s congressional delegation, is also feeling the impact.

Walden ascended this year to chair of the powerful House Energy & Commerce committee, which is holding hearings on the Affordable Care Act. Walden is leading the charge to repeal the ACA; he also favors the construction of a wall on the Mexican border and Trump’s immigration ban.

“Things have certainly been busier since the new administration,” said Andrew Malcolm, Walden’s deputy chief of staff in the D.C. office.  

But the volume of constituent messages hasn’t increased dramatically, Malcolm said. Since the beginning of the year, Walden’s staff have responded to 1,400 messages.

By comparison, in all of 2016, the office responded to 26,000 messages.

What about protests targeting Walden’s Trump-friendly policy positions? House Republicans are reportedly discussing measures to protect themselves and staff from protesters upset about efforts to repeal the ACA.

“Oregonians have always been very engaged with issues,” Malcolm demurred.

Malcolm said Walden’s staff are interacting more with the White House. Rep. Walden met with President Trump in the Oval Office last week, Malcolm said. The congressman never met one-on- one with President Obama, Malcolm said.

“I’ve had more contact with the White House in the past 2 ½ weeks than in the entire seven years I’ve worked here,” Malcolm said.