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Fifth Estate

Three Words Congress Hates to Hear: You’ve Got Mail

Cell Phones
BY ALICIA AULT AND KATHY JONES

Members of Congress without emailWhile tens of millions of Americans happily digest a daily diet of "you've got mail," a small group of citizens remains wary of e-mail, unsure how to fit it into their daily routine -- and often downright resentful of it.

No, they aren't your great-grandparents. They're your Congress.

Of the 440 voting and non-voting House of Representatives members, 22 have no e-mail at all. Even House Speaker Dennis Hastert is wired only halfway -- his office receives-mail, but does not respond to it. And while all U.S. Senators have e-mail, they, like their House counterparts, routinely shun non-constituent mail -- even though they chair committees whose decisions affect the entire country.

Lawmakers offer a variety of explanations -- some might say excuses -- for foot-dragging into the information age. A 5th Estate survey found that fear of "spam" -- unsolicited mail and advertising -- and the inability to filter out non-constituent mail were the main reasons these Congress members gave for staying unwired. The survey also found that many offices that have e-mail are bemoaning the growing volume of it, and staff members complain that e-mail adds another layer of correspondence duties to their already overtaxed systems.

Some congressional observers said that Congress' fear of spam is a touch hypocritical, considering that politicians spend so much time and money on traditional mass mailings to their districts. "They're the kings of spam," said Peter Sepp, vice president of communications at the National Taxpayers Union, a Washington-based advocacy group. "They've spammed the American people through their mailboxes for years."

And other critics said avoiding correspondence from constituents -- and the lack of an e-mail strategy -- is frequently a reflection of the representatives' disdain for the people who elected them. "As our Congress becomes less and less democratic in many ways, it's not surprising that some congressional offices would just want to plug their ears and slam the door shut," said Gary Ruskin, director of the Congressional Accountability Project, a Washington-based watchdog group. Both Ruskin and Sepp also frown on Congress members' shunning non-constituent mail, saying that lawmakers should be responsive to all citizens. Click here to learn more about the mail Congress throws away.

OVERWHELMED OR UNDER-PRIORITIZED?

Even at the highest levels of Congress, e-mail use is limited. House Speaker Dennis Hastert's office receives e-mail -- almost 1,000 messages a day -- but never responds to them. Hastert's office tallies the views of constituents, advocacy groups and other citizens who e-mail him, but his office still hasn't set up a way to reply to these messages. Joshua Goldberg, administrator for the Illinois Republican's web site, says the staff is working on installing an automated e-mail handling system.

Yet not every legislator is ducking e-mail. Some use it with gusto, and have no fear about being in closer communications with their constituents. Rep. Jay Inslee"We love it," says Sara O'Connell, communications director for Rep. Jay Inslee, a Democrat from Washington. "It's so great for democracy, and much more interactive."

Inslee's office seems to be the exception, however. Several House and Senate staffers interviewed by 5th Estate uniformly said they have created neither an easy nor an efficient way to answer e-mail. Richard Shapiro, executive director of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Washington D.C.-based Congressional Management Foundation is currently compiling a report on handling congressional e-mail. Many congressional offices are swamped, he said.

"The [e-mail] volume levels have increased geometrically over the last year," Shapiro said. "And they know it's going to go up. They just don't know what they're going to do about it."

The problem, legislators said, is that responding to every e-mail would simply overwhelm them.

"The significant increase in mail volume that would result" from adding e-mail "would place too great a strain on my resources and my staff's ability to keep up with their already heavy work load," said Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., in a faxed response to the 5th Estate survey of lawmakers whose offices do not accept e-mail.

Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Fla., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, echoed Rep. Frank's concerns. "Adding an e-mail box might force me to hire additional staff to wade through non-constituent communications and 'spam' junk mail," he said in a letter responding to the survey.

Three other representatives, Philip Crane, R-Ill., and Ron Klink, D-Pa., and Steve Buyer, R-Ind., also expressed concern that e-mail would swamp their staff. "An over-barrage of e-mails ... may have the capacity to over-tax our own resources," Crane said in a faxed response.

Damming this new flow of discussion and feedback, however, may be the last thing politicians want to admit they're trying to do. Just eight of the 22 unwired Congress members' offices responded to the survey, taken in late October. Several others agreed to talk to us, but only if the interviews were off the record.

One top staffer in an Ohio representative's office said that three people in his office answered 32,000 letters in 1998. But e-mail isn't a priority, he said.

But it appears Congress hasn't hesitated to spend on computer technology in other ways. According to an investigation by The Washington Times, Congress has spent at least $1 billion for new computer and Internet technology since 1995. Among the techno-buys: nearly 12,500 personal computers and,1,275 laptops for the House alone, and T1 lines for every member's office.

E-mail could save some money -- Congress spent $31.4 million on postage alone in 1998, not including costs for paper and preparation of mail. Yet despite the potential for savings, many members still aren't interested in e-mail, said one former congressional staffer who asked not to be named. "If a member of Congress sees their role as working with constituents, then e-mail is real, real helpful, but if they see their role as a national figure" then answering constituent mail might become less attractive, he said.

Sepp also said most Congress members aren't focusing their efforts or dollars on responding to constituents: They're spending far more money marketing themselves -- through direct, print mailings -- than answering constituent mail, he said. "Congressional staffers off the record have confirmed this with us on at least 10 instances" that about 10-percent of all postage spent in Congress is devoted to answering constituent inquiries. Our own research tends to verify that."

Much of the rest of Congress' allowance for postage is spent on direct mail, Sepp said. Here's how it works: Although Congress members are barred from using postage money for campaigning or soliciting money from voters, they use these direct mailings to raise their profile among voters. Politicians feel print mailings are an effective tool to reach constituents, Sepp said, because "what [print mailings] can do is show the member of Congress cutting a ribbon on a new senior center, or steering an important contract to his district. And voters remember that. That's not the same effect that e-mail has."

USING IT AND LOVING IT

Despite a pervasive lack of enthusiasm for e-mail, the staffs of some congressional offices have managed to tame - and learn to love -- e-mail.

One office has gotten way ahead of the curve -- Rep. Inslee's. No surprise, since Inslee's 1st District in Washington includes the northern edge of Redmond, home of the Microsoft Corp., and other tech-savvy Seattle suburbs.

Inslee's staff embrace e-mail, saying that it promotes better communications with the district's residents. "We get such great feedback from constituents," O'Connell said.

The office's 500 to 1,000 e-mails a day now dwarf incoming postal mail. Constituents who e-mail the congressman first get an auto-reply that the correspondence has been received. Next, one of Inslee's five legislative staffers drafts a response, which is approved by the congressman then e-mailed to the letter-writer. O'Connell says that their system is more efficient than relying on the postal service. "The e-mail saves two stamps and a couple of weeks in the mail process."

Many of the other House offices use e-mail through the "Write Your Representative" program, which asks for a zip code to filter constituent mail. All of the Senators have e-mail, including their own filters that require senders to fill out name and address fields. Some Senators also have added address filters on their web sites.

SCATTERED POLICIES

The House, however, does not have a uniform policy of dealing with e-mail; in fact, individuality is encouraged. "Each office is given flexibility to design their communications as they see fit," said Jason Poblete, communications director for the House Administration Committee, which is in charge of all House operations.

Both Republican and Democratic leaders say they are urgently exploring how to help their House members, said Goldberg of Speaker Hastert's office. "All the offices are trying to find a way to deal with this because it is going to become more important as more people go online," he said.

House members who lack e-mail feel they may be able to live without it -- all of the 22 without e-mail won their last two elections by wide margins, and many ran unopposed. But politicians who get too comfortable without technology may find themselves at a disadvantage. "If I'm an old congressman, if you're a young and bright challenger and have e-mail and everything new in technology, you're going to kill me" in a campaign, said one staffer who requested anonymity.

Even if the two parties' leaders get their acts together, it does not necessarily follow that 435 House offices will do likewise. And while the 100 Senate offices may have more resources, they, too, are plodding slowly into the modern world, complaining all the while about a lack of staff and technology.

"Sometimes you'll hear technological excuses for political problems," said Ruskin, adding that change won't come unless the public demands it. "The basic problem here is the ruled have forgotten how to make the rulers pay attention."

Alicia Ault is a freelance writer living in Maryland. Kathy Jones is Senior Editor of 5th Estate.


 
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