WASHINGTON – In hundreds of homes across Rep. Melissa Bean's district, her constituents' phones are ringing more than a year before voters head to the polls for the next election.
Sometimes, it is Bean on the line — well, her voice anyway.
The freshman Democrat, who unseated 35-year Republican Rep. Phil Crane last year by depicting him as out of touch with voters, employs a rarely used method to make sure she remains in touch: automated phone calls.
Bean makes audio messages that notify residents of her suburban Chicago district of upcoming town meetings, workshops on identity theft or, more typically, a chance to meet her and talk about issues.
During her first 10 months in office, Bean — ranked the No. 1 target for defeat in 2006 by the National Republican Congressional Committee — has sent out automated calls for at least 16 meetings, often just hours ahead of time, according to records filed with the House clerk's office.
As of Oct. 31, Bean was the only one of Illinois' 19-member House delegation to use automated phone calls, besides other outreach such as electronic mail and a Web site, according to House records.
The previous year, Rep. Rahm Emanuel, now the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, used such calls to highlight the availability of low-interest college loans. His spokeswoman said her records indicate the last time he did so was earlier this year.
Bean says she makes use of automated calls because she has a responsibility to keep her constituents informed.
"To meet this responsibility in the most cost-effective way possible, we use the most appropriate media available," she said.
At least one of her potential Republican challengers, investment banker David McSweeney, criticized her tactics.
"They're using taxpayer money to do campaign work," McSweeney said, adding that some recipients of the calls think Bean was personally trying to reach them.
House records show that in more than 40 other districts that have had competitive races, the vast majority did not report making automated calls, a handful made several different calls and only a few appear to be in Bean's league of frequency.
Rep. Lincoln Davis, a Democrat representing 24 counties in rural Tennessee, finds that automated calls — anywhere from 2,000 to 10,000 at a time — help attract bigger constituent turnouts, upward of 75 to 120 people, spokesman Tom Hayden said.
"We just wanted to reach out to as wide an audience as possible," Hayden said. "The thing we heard most is that people were appreciative that they got a call from their congressman."
Money for the calls comes from the House member's office budget, which on average is about $1.2 million a year to run the entire office, according to the House Administration Committee.
For each meeting where notification is done by phone, some 10,000 to 20,000 automated calls are made, according to Bean spokesman Brian Herman, meaning Bean potentially could have more than a quarter-million such calls made by year's end.
Only a few people have complained, and their names have been removed from call lists, Herman said.
Traditionally, members of Congress notify constituents of upcoming meetings through occasional newsletters, postcards, letters or newspaper or radio ads.
Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., the son of a former congressman and a former political science professor whose doctoral dissertation at Duke University was "Congressional Communications," said he does not plan to use them.
"I'm not sure people are happy to get them, that they think it's an intrusion," Lipinski said. "Mail allows you to say more and has a longer attention span. You can stick the notice on the refrigerator."
Herman said automated calls can go out even hours before a scheduled event and that they are considerably cheaper than standard mailings. It might cost 7 or 8 cents per automated call as opposed to 25 cents to 35 cents for printing and mailing notices, he said.
Campaign experts say the calls also let Bean use the advantages of incumbency.
"Up and until an election, incumbents still have a day job, and part of that day job is communicating with constituents," said Carol Darr, director of the George Washington University Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet.