James O'Keefe, the conservative activist of ACORN video fame who was arrested this week for his involvement in an alleged hare-brained scheme to tamper with Sen. Mary Landrieu's phone lines, posted a statement today claiming that the real aim of the caper was to prove that Landrieu's office wasn't answering constituents' calls. The explanation for why he, and three accomplices dressed up as phone company workers, allegedly entered a federal building under false pretenses has come off as laughable. Which is too bad. O'Keefe's suspicion about the Louisiana senator is a common one, particularly among Tea Party activists, and not just in Louisiana. Many of them are convinced that members of Congress are ignoring them, largely because the activists have a nearly impossible time getting any live person on the line in their offices.
Last month, I hung out with a group of activists from the Tea Party Patriots who were in DC trying to lobby the Senate against the health care bill. Mark Meckler, one of TPP's national coordinators, told me at the time that he was convinced that his senator, Barbara Boxer from California, had her staff take the phones and fax machine off the hook at night so that people couldn't leave messages or send faxes. He said he'd actually checked several times to see if he could get through to her office at 3 a.m., but says he never had any luck. That was one reason he camped out for hours in her office that day--to see if her staff ever answered the phone. I might chalk this up to conservative paranoia, except that when I tried calling Boxer's DC office just now, I had a pretty similar experience. When I pressed "3" to speak to a staff member, I was put on hold for a minute and then disconnected. Other reporters apparently have the same complaint about Boxer, and I've had similar experiences with other senators, most recently trying to get through the main line of the office of Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH). (His press secretary is still ignoring me.)
I suspect that the Tea Partiers are right: These aren't isolated incidents, which makes me wish that O'Keefe hadn't been such a bonehead and had actually, as he said, "used a different approach" to his investigation. A real expose on how little members of the Senate connect with constituents might have forced a few of them to at least staff up the phone lines. As it is, dealing with a Senate office is often worse than trying to get customer service from Comcast. No wonder the Tea Partiers are mad!