THE TOUGH CUSTOMER- Sens Warner, Webb: Can you hear me now?

As citizens, we're entitled to the same basic consideration and service from our elected officials– including respectful, timely, and honest responses to legitimate questions– that we deserve from a store clerk, a waitperson, or any other businessperson or public servant we encounter in our everyday lives.

As I was trying to get some information regarding each of our US senators last week, however, the offices of both John Warner and Jim Webb failed to meet this simple standard.

I stumbled upon this story because I wanted to get a clear and current picture of Warner's position on a bill that came up for a vote in the Senate last Tuesday, September 18, concerning an issue I think is important: the restoration of habeas corpus. I called his office to inquire. Warner had been in favor of the bill, but I read a news report stating that he was "reconsidering" his support. I wanted to hear from his office where my Senator stood.

Good luck.

A receptionist in Warner's Washington office put me on hold before I could utter a syllable, where I remained for ten minutes, until I was no longer certain whether I was on hold or forgotten.

So I hung up and called back, letting the receptionist know I had already been on hold for ten minutes. She apologized, said the office was very busy and that someone would be with me "in a minute."

Six and a half minutes later, she returned, apologizing again. I explained the reason for my call, only to be placed on hold again so she could figure out which staffer was handling the habeas issue.

Dum-di-dee-dum-dum. After another six minutes, the receptionist returned to say she was connecting me to a staffer. Finally!

What I got, however, was the voicemail of Warner employee Sam Zega.

Yes, for those of you not keeping count, I spent approximately 25 minutes of my life to leave a message for Sam Zega.

What's worse, Zega didn't even bother to return my call for three days, long after the vote was taken.

To be fair to Warner and his staff, the sheer volume of constituent calls can overwhelm an office, although to his credit, Warner's Chief of Staff, Carter Cornick, did not use this as an excuse when we finally spoke. After I shifted the focus of my interest from concerned citizen asking about a vote to irritated consumer columnist contemplating writing about my experience, I got a call back.

"Senator Warner places a top priority on responsiveness and accessibility," he said. "I have to express my regret that your outreach to our office was unsatisfactory in terms of the way we were responding."

Cornick noted that constituents can also send emails to Warner's office to express their opinion, but he agreed that does not replace speaking to a live staff member if a constituent desires to do so.

Given this experience, I wondered how Webb's office would perform in handling a similar inquiry, so I dialed his DC office as well, even though I already knew Webb was solidly in favor of the bill.

A woman named Mary answered my call, and I explained my reason for calling, without disclosing that I already knew Webb's position. Mary quickly and confidently answered my question.

Unfortunately, she told me Webb had not yet made up his mind on the issue. Was Mary mistaken? Was she unaware of Webb's position? Was she, as it suspiciously seemed, simply trying to get me off the phone with a pleasantly delivered, intentionally vague non-answer to my question?

I couldn't be sure, and Webb's press office did not return my call seeking an explanation.

But on the positive side, I only burned five minutes.

This is not about the underlying political issue, on which, as it turned out, Webb and Warner were on opposite sides. It's about respectful service to constituents who seek to participate in the political process.

Warner's office clearly deserves a second chance to let its actions match it high-sounding ideals. The performance of Webb's office and its lack of explanation, however, was profoundly disappointing.