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Anthrax Fears Boost Importance of E-mail on Hill

October 25, 2001

Rep. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.) admits he was never a "high-level e-mail user," but Sept. 11 and subsequent events, including the anthrax threat on Capitol Hill,have changed that.

Whipping out his Blackberry - the hand-held e-mail device that all Members of Congress and many staffers were given following the terrorist attacks - Hayes said he's become a whiz at checking his electronic messages.

And like most Members, Hayes believes that e-mail has taken on a new importance in the wake of the anthrax attack on the Senate and the halting of mail delivery.

"Most Members are talking with their local media and stressing" that their constituents should now reach them by e-mail," said Hayes, who along with other lawmakers was coping with being ejected from his Hill office in order to allow biohazard experts to check for anthrax contamination this week.

One House computer expert said he believes that for at least the short-term, e-mail is the preferred method of communication on Capitol Hill: "I've heard a lot of staff joking about how you can't get anthrax from e-mail."

Another GOP aide agreed that "without a doubt, e-mail will become a bigger component" of communication on the Hill.

"We've joked about that, but realistically it's a great way to communicate," Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.) said, mentioning that he would prefer his constituents contact him via the Internet.

"E-mail is wonderful. I use it all the time," he added.

Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.) said his office is treating e-mail differently since regular mail delivery was halted on the Hill following the discovery of anthrax in a letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.).

"Up until now my office has not guaranteed a response to e-mail ... because of the sheer volume we get," Shadegg said.

But these days, the four-term House Member's constituents are more likely to get responses to electronic messages than letters they stamp and send through the U.S. Postal Service - at least in the immediate future.

And with mail delivery temporarily halted and some Capitol officials even giving consideration to burning mail that is currently quarantined, a high-level GOP staffer said he expects that e-mail and, to a lesser extent, faxes will continue to be the preferred methods of communication.

"My logical guess is that people are not going to be seeing that mail for a long time, so it's going to have to be regenerated," he noted. "There are going to be issues with timely mail delivery for a long time ... and in that context, fax, e-mail and other means of getting information out is going to be much more timely."

Jim Forbes, spokesman for House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio), said a number of Members have been calling to ask if the committee knows when mail delivery will resume.

"The answer is 'No, we don't,'" Forbes said, adding that dozens of Members have subsequently issued press releases "saying until our mail delivery resumes, we would like you to send us an e-mail if it's something time sensitive."

Like many lawmakers, Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) has posted a message on his Congressional Web site urging folks in his district to go online to reach him.

Even when regular mail delivery begins again, items will be subject to stringent new safeguards that could make e-mail a more reliable method of communication with Members of Congress.

For example, as Shadegg noted, "snail mail" without an individual's full name and return address will not be opened. Other screening methods could also slow mail delivery.

Nonetheless, Shadegg and others believe e-mail has its own drawbacks.

To begin with, not every constituent owns a computer or has easy access to e-mail.

Moreover, Members can't always tell whether the mail they are receiving is actually from their constituents, though "Write Your Representative" programs currently on many House Web sites seek to overcome that problem by making Web users enter their states and zip codes before sending e-mail.

Although several House offices said they definitely noted significant increases in the levels of e-mail correspondence they've been receiving over the past week and half, House officials could not provide any exact statistics.

Figures demonstrating the level of e-mail production in the House are generated at the beginning of every month and should be available in early November.

By Amy Keller, Copyright © 2001 Roll Call Inc.


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