Frustrated House members are calling a new $16 million telephone system "a failure" after its third outage in as many days, and some are beginning to wonder whether selecting AT&T was "the right choice."

The House of Representatives system was out of order for more than two hours on Thursday, bringing howls from members unable to communicate with constituents or with their home district offices.The outage also forced House leaders to resort to hand signals to communicate with their floor organizers.

"It's like returning to the 19th century," said one leadership aide.

One lawmaker, Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., went to the floor and held up two styrofoam coffee cups linked by a piece of wire.

"If I get the contract for $10 million or so to install this in the House of Representatives, I promise that it will work just as well as the phone system we have here now," he said.

American Telephone & Telegraph Co. flew in top management and technical executives from around the country in an attempt to ferret out the mystery bug in the balky computer switching system.

The system, called System 85, controls some 17,000 telephones in three House office buildings, two annexes and the House side of the Capitol. It was installed last August after AT&T won in a competitive bidding process held by the House Administration Committee.