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E-mail gets the cold shoulder in Congress

December 24, 2001 

In theory, e-mail should be a useful tool for democracy, an easy and prompt way for citizens to reach their representatives. And with the fear and disruption resulting from the discovery of anthrax in congressional mail, e-mail might seem an ideal alternative.

But although many members of Congress asked constituents to switch to e-mail after mail delivery to their offices was halted in October, the trend on Capitol Hill seems to be a backlash against the medium.

Ill-equipped to cope with the deluge of correspondence that the Internet has brought, many congressional offices no longer disclose e-mail addresses to the public. Staff members and lobbyists say that e-mail is far less successful than faxes, phone calls or letters in influencing legislators.

A recent test for this article indicated that e-mail is unlikely to elicit an acknowledgment that it has been read. On Nov. 26, messages were sent to the 65 Senate offices listing addresses on the Senate Web site. The messages identified the sender as a reporter sending e-mail to members of Congress to see whether, when and how they answered. Aside from 27 automated responses, only seven Senate offices sent a reply within two weeks.

Many of the automated responses discussed the difficulties that e-mail has created for congressional offices. Staff members are deterred from reading e-mail because they receive up to 5,000 messages per week, many of them from advertisers and non-constituents.

In one response, Larry Neal, deputy chief of staff for Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, wrote, "The communication that Sen. Gramm values most certainly does not arrive by wire. It is the one where someone sat down at a kitchen table, got a sheet of lined paper and a No. 2 pencil, and poured their heart into a letter."

Gramm's office, like many others, often responds to e-mail messages on paper.

Anthrax disruptions

Also responding to the test were the offices of Republican Sens. Richard Lugar of Indiana, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, Robert Smith of New Hampshire and Michael Enzi of Wyoming, all of whom, like Gramm's office, replied within four days. The offices of Democrats Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Carl Levin of Michigan replied after nine days.

However, many Senate staffs were displaced at the time because of the anthrax episode. And offices typically take three weeks or more to respond to postal mail, said Rick Shapiro, executive director of the nonprofit Congressional Management Foundation.

Still, antipathy toward e-mail is evident on both sides of the Capitol. Rep. Brad Carson, D-Okla., said that when he took office in January, staff members from other offices warned him not to answer e-mail with e-mail. "There's an institutional bias against adopting new technology," Carson said in a telephone interview.

His office responds to e-mail within three or four days, he said. But that practice remains an exception in an institution in which office procedures are built around logging and answering postal mail.

Congress received about 80 million e-mail messages last year, according to the Congress Online Project, a two-year research effort financed by the Pew Charitable Trusts and conducted by the Congressional Management Foundation and George Washington University ( ). The researchers estimate that the number might have doubled this year. The House received only about 17 million pieces of paper mail, House administrators said. The Senate numbers for paper mail were not immediately available.

Anti-democratic effect?

In March, a study by the Congress Online Project found that e-mail, instead of promoting democracy, might be having the opposite effect. The ease with which e-mail can be sent and the push by advocacy groups for supporters to send e-mail to Congress have raised the public's expectation of being heard, the study said. Instead, the report concluded, the "conflicting practices and expectations of all the parties are fostering cynicism and eroding trust."

In fact, because of the daunting task of keeping up with e-mail, nearly half of the Senate offices no longer accept e-mail through public addresses, compared with 83 offices that had public e-mail addresses in 1996. In the House, about half of the offices have public e-mail addresses now, compared with about one-third in 1996. Today, most offices, including several that still list e-mail addresses, direct constituents to fill out forms at the legislators' Web sites. In fact, nine offices that listed e-mail addresses sent responses that they no longer accept e-mail at those addresses.

For example, an automated response from the e-mail address of Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., provided a link to his Web site with directions to communicate through Web-based forms and to consult a section called Issue Positions.

The message reflects the problem that electronic communication has created for many congressional offices: "In an effort to respond as quickly and thoroughly as possible," Kyl's message said, "I am no longer receiving e-mail at this address."

Individuals who send e-mail to members of Congress can improve the chances that their opinions will be noted, says Pam Fielding, founder of a consulting firm called E-advocates. She suggests observing these guidelines:

  • Include your full name and postal address.

  • Communicate only with your representatives.

  • Put the message in your own words and tell your story.

  • Address one topic per message.

by Rebecca Fairley Raney, New York Times. Copyright © 2001 Star Tribune.

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