WASHINGTON – They are on the front lines of America’s new civil war.
"They are the Marines, if you will," said William Doherty, a co-founder of Braver Angels, a national organization working to bridge political differences among Americans. "And in increasingly polarized times, they're getting more and more flak that's intended for the boss but lands on them."
Here's the rub: These Marines can’t fire back, no matter the verbal wound or the personal insult, lest their conduct reflect poorly on the lawmaker for whom they work.
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"The division has gotten worse and is reflected in some of those calls," said Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, who has spent 15 years in Congress. "And that's not necessarily from Montanans either I might add. From national folks. But yeah, we're probably getting more now than we did in 2007."
'Do you guys know how stupid you are?'
Staffers have been especially traumatized since the Jan. 6 attack last year, when a pro-Trump mob swarmed the Capitol and, a few weeks later, when a man rammed his car into a security checkpoint, killing a Capitol Police officer. A two-year pandemic, constant infighting between lawmakers, and inconsistent COVID policies only have added to the anxiety and depression.
Combative callers have not made their jobs any easier.
Doherty, who is a trained family therapist and University of Minnesota professor, has been working with congressional offices on how to handle abusive callers at a time when morale is low and angst is high in the continuing wake of last year's attack on the Capitol by insurrectionists.
Recently, Doherty conducted a two-hour session with nine staffers from a mix of Senate and House offices – all Democrats – who shared their experiences about some of the most unnerving phone calls they've gotten.
USA TODAY was invited to watch the training but was not permitted to use the names of actual staffers because their offices did not want them to speak on lawmakers' behalf.
One recounted the time a caller used her ethnicity (she told him she was Indian) to insult her. Another staffer spoke about how a caller aggressively mocked him for stumbling over an answer. Still another detailed how a caller routinely “attacks in the form of a question. It’ll be like, 'Do you guys know how stupid you are?'”
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Doherty's advice: Don't engage on a personal level.
"If it is just a sort of a glancing blow, you can ignore what was said as if you didn't hear it and redirect back to the topic," he told them. But "if somebody is attacking and you don't respond early, quickly, you are implicitly inviting them to continue."
And if all else fails, you tell them “this conversation isn’t working” and hang up, he said.
Passion, abuse and a threat to kill
This not just a Democratic problem. The recent leak of a draft Supreme Court opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade has increased the frequency and ferocity of calls from abortion rights advocates to Republican offices.
"We made sure that whoever's answering our phones in whatever office they're in, that they're well prepared," West Virginia GOP Sen. Shelley Moore Capito told USA TODAY. "I said to them myself this is a very sensitive issue. There's going to be a lot of passion."
Often, the callers are not home-state constituents but, to Tester's point, part of choreographed efforts by outside groups inundating offices with a similar messages.
And sometimes it can get frightening.
A California man was sentenced in 2020 to federal prison for making harassing telephone calls to government offices and for threatening to injure congressional staffers and an intern who answered the calls, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Robert Eric Stahlnecker made "abusive telephone calls to staff members and interns of multiple members of Congress" in 2019 among the more than 10,000 contacts to government agencies and elected officials that year DOJ said.
That included several calls to to the Washington, D.C., office of Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, in which Stahlnecker threatened to come to Brown's office to kill the female intern who answered the phone.
One staffer told Doherty they've gotten calls saying they're all going to be arrested.
"The military tribunal is going to arrest them or something like that," he said. "Our politics are more outrageous now and so some of the phone calls are more outrageous."
The Arguer, the Attacker and the profiles of difficult callers
Doherty has divided the difficult callers into seven categories:
The Talker (they're hard to get off the phone but aren't outwardly hostile)
The Distressed Help Seeker (they have a pressing need and want personal support that the office cannot provide)
The Arguer (they follow a specific issue and are motivated by the day's news)
The Intruder (they're intent on learning about your own life experiences and beliefs and can become uncomfortably personal)
The Attacker (they ask rude questions, make personal criticisms and often use profanity if they don't get the answer they want)
The Triggerer (they say sensitive things that try to touch on the staffer's personal identity)
The Ranter (they begin the call by launching onto a tirade)
Doherty told the staffers and interns – some of whom make as little as $15 per hour –not to call people obnoxious or insulting, no matter how aggressive they are on the phone. And don’t come off as insincere. Rather, tell them how their words "are making you uncomfortable."
"They live tough lives often. And they're used to combat," Doherty said of hostile callers. "If you protect your boundaries (but) you don't fight, they may back off."
As part of the training, the staffers who attended the seminar broke into small groups, applying newly learned strategies and role-playing as callers on thorny subjects.
Doherty will be leading a second session with another group of staffers and interns Monday. Braver Angels worked in collaboration with the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress to conduct the training.
“Our job in Congress is to listen to the people we represent, and channel their concerns into positive action," said Chair Derek Kilmer, the Washington State Democrat who chairs the select committee. "Trainings like these help us become better listeners, and ultimately better legislators.”
One young Democratic Senate staffer who attended the first session said the vast majority of callers he encounters are civil even when they're upset. But occasionally, he gets yelled at, insulted and harassed.
"If it's your first job out of college, that may not be easy for you to go through. It can be demoralizing," he said. "But then you if you stick through, then you get better dealing with those calls. You realize they don't know me, so it's not really at me. They're angry at a different situation that I'm not responsible for. So you don't take it personally anymore."
Lawmakers make an effort to find out what callers are saying
Constituent calls to congressional offices have grown in importance since the pandemic forced the cancellation of many in-person events, such as town halls.
Several lawmakers USA TODAY spoke with said they make an effort to learn what callers are saying.
Tester, for example, meets with staff weekly to go over phone calls of the previous week. He said his staff gets clear instructions on how to deal with difficult callers.
“We tell them: Listen. If they're not professional, terminate the call. If they start cussing and screaming and hollering just terminate the call, just say: ‘Sorry. Gotta go. Bye,'" the Montana Democrat said. "If in fact, they're making points we don't agree with, that's fine. That's what we should be doing. We should be listening to those folks passively, passing those on."
Washington Democratic Rep. Suzan DelBene said the calls her office gets reflect the angst many citizens feel.
"Definitely, people feel a great sense of urgency right now because families are struggling with prices. And just uncertainty about what's happening with COVID long term," she told USA TODAY. "They want to see governance work."
The angry calls not just to Congress but also to state legislatures and city halls do have a silver lining, Doherty said.
"There are more of these (front-line) folks than there are elected officials by far in the country. And many of these young people are future political leaders. A lot of folks (in office) started out this way," he said. "So them learning the skills of managing difficult conversations, conflictual conversations, without disrespecting somebody but without being walked on is important, I think, for our country."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Congressional staffers getting help to deal with aggressive callers