By nearly all accounts, calls to Congress have risen since the 2016 election, as they often do in the initial years of a new presidency. Yet many of those calls are not merely organic expressions of a newly energized electorate. Rather, they are being engineered by interest groups. The practice, little-known outside of the Capitol, is known as “transfer calling” or “patch-through calling.” It involves specialized firms placing telemarketing calls in search of people who agree with their clients’ causes. When they find one, they connect that person to his or her representative to express what is meant to sound like an authentic and firmly held opinion.One example from the Center for Individual Freedom:
“Are you willing to call Rep. Hudson and urge him to support a law to protect consumers online?” she asks on a recording of the phone call. “If you are, I can patch this call through, and you can leave a message with his office and let them know you support a consumer bill of rights to protect your online usage.”And that's not all...
Transfer calling is just one tactic groups use to apply pressure to legislators. Other strategies include forming issue-oriented front groups to drum up citizen interest, commissioning public-opinion polls, scripting op-eds or letters to the editor of local papers, and encouraging followers to weigh in on social media and with texts and emails. Phone calls can be more effective at influencing legislators, though, because it is harder to judge the authenticity of messages originating from newer technological platforms. In one well-publicized example, when the Federal Communications Commission last year solicited comments on its proposal to undo net-neutrality rules, it received millions of comments that were later determined to be either form letters or bot-written messages.
“There has been a long-term increase in efforts to gin up political mobilization,” says Matt Grossmann, a political science professor at Michigan State University who studies interest groups and influence. “The firms that do it are a little bit secretive, but there is enough in the public domain to show that there are firms that do this full-time that you can hire to try to stimulate grassroots support for your cause.”