I-Team: If you call your lawmaker, do they ever call back? - WSMV News 4

I-Team: If you call your lawmaker, do they ever call back?

Updated: Feb 19, 2018 07:00 PM

It’s a mantra instilled in American citizens from an early age.

Mad about a certain issue? Contact your congressperson.

A News 4 I-Team investigation looks at what happens when you actually do that - and whether you can ever expect a callback.

Deborah Obrock is such a repeat caller, she even saves her lawmakers’ numbers in her phone.

Obrock estimates she has contacted her elected officials more than 100 times.

“I just see a lot of things that bother me,” said Obrock, who has lived in Hendersonville for more than 20 years.

The News 4 I-Team contacted every Tennessee lawmaker in Congress for their response rate - exact numbers on how many messages they receive and how many of those correspondences they return, such as phone calls, e-mails and letters.

SLIDESHOW: How does the Tennessee delegation respond to constituents?

Only one out of Tennessee’s eleven offices provided exact numbers on their return rate: the office of Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Nashville).

“I’m a public servant, I work for people,” said Cooper.

Keep in mind, Congress is exempt from releasing such information because offices are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

Yet advocates for government transparency said they believe offices should have provided those numbers anyway.

“There’s nothing about this process that makes sense for them to be closed about, except for not disclosing perhaps the personal identifiable information of any constituents who happen to give it to them,” said Alexander Howard, the deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation.

The Sunlight Foundation is a nonpartisan, nonprofit group based in Washington, DC, that works to make government and politics more transparent and accountable.

In 2016, Cooper’s staff returned nearly 45 percent of messages, according to data provided by his office.

Compare that to 2017, when the response rate dropped to roughly 38 percent.

The response rate comes with caveats. Every e-mail receives an automated reply. The office only responds to constituents who leave their contact information. Messages with profane language or threats do not receive a response either.

“Any business would look at that for their customer service numbers and say that’s not so great,” said News 4 I-Team reporter Alanna Autler. “What do you have to say to that?”

“Well, you noted earlier that most of my colleagues wouldn’t give you any data on this at all. So what are they hiding?” Cooper said. “We want our response rate to be 100 percent perfect to everybody who lives in our area.”

Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) also spoke to the News 4 I-Team. Their offices only provided estimations.

Their answers for 2017 appeared strikingly similar.

Both senators said their offices received roughly 700,000 pieces of mail and more than 200,000 phone calls.

Both senators said their staff members returned nearly all of them.

“Do you think people will buy that?” Autler asked.

“Well I hope they’ll buy it, it’s just true,” said Sen. Corker. “Our office has been incredibly busy, there’s a lot of issues people care about.”

Corker’s office also adheres to rules about who receives a response. The office only replies to Tennesseans who ask for a response and leave their information. Duplicate messages are ignored.

Alexander admitted his phone lines do clog up. It even happened when Obrock tried calling after our interview.

Both Alexander and Corker encouraged callers to keep trying their lines until they get through.

Alexander said his staffers respond to the calls they do receive, and every email receives an automated response.

“We do our dead-level best to do that,” Alexander said.

Obrock plans to keep calling, and she said you should, too.

“Well, we voted for them, and it’s supposed to be government by the people, for the people,” Obrock said.

Copyright 2018 WSMV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.

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