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July 7, 1996

U.S. Congress moves
slowly into the e-mail age

By Timothy C. Barmann

Technology has promised to make life easier, and in many ways it has.

Take sending electronic mail. With the most basic home computer, you can whip off a message to your brother in Cleveland or to your old roommate in Zimbabwe in seconds. There are no stamps to buy. It's almost as easy as talking to yourself.

But that ease has created a problem for some people who get lots of mail: Members of Congress.

It's so easy to send e-mail that the mailboxes of some legislators are overflowing with digital "junk mail" they often view as useless.

Todd Andrews should know.

He works as a spokesman for Rep. Jack Reed, and inherited the e-mail address of former Representative Tom Andrews of Maine.

Since January 1995, Todd Andrews has been getting Tom Andrews' electronic mail, despite his complaints to the Senate computer center.

The messages sometimes total more than 100 a week, he said.

They're not personal messages, but mass mailings and form letters. There is the periodic mailing from an ultra-conservative Texan who calls himself "The Texas Conservatives News Bureau." And there is the newsletter on middle-eastern politics "that is really not very useful at all," said Andrews. There are the frequent messages from a man who writes about what he thinks are important events in Europe.

Andrews said these newsletters are "of limited value to anyone except for the person who is writing them."

They are certainly of little use to a legislator, such as Reed, whose main concern is Rhode Island.

The problem is compounded by the fact that it's just as easy to send an e-mail message to one legislator as it is to send it to the entire group of legislators who are online. And many people do just that through several free services available on the Internet.

(One such site on the World Wide Web is called the Congressional Mailbox Server - http://www.tnet.com/congress/index.html - which was put up by a private Arizona company.)

"It should be the ultimate in town hall representation where you get instantaneous feedback from your constituents," said Andrews. "But unfortunately it's not that way right now."

Neither Reed nor Rhode Island's other representative, Patrick Kennedy, has an e-mail address yet.

Both legislators say they want feedback from Rhode Islanders, but their offices say they fear an onslaught of e-mail from people outside their constituency.

With e-mail, there's no easy way to tell where a message originated. Unlike regular postal mail, there is no postmark. The only way to know is to wade through the message to see if the writer included a return postal address.

"We just don't have the staff to answer all of them," said Andrews.

Larry Berman, a spokesman for Kennedy, cited the same problem.

"Patrick talks to his dad (Senator Ted Kennedy, D-Mass.) and we know the level of e-mail he gets. We figure he would get a similar level," Berman said. "If we put (an e-mail address) out for national consumption, especially with a name like 'Kennedy,' we're going to get bombarded with e-mail."

Reed and Patrick Kennedy are not alone. As of late June, 237 of the 435 representatives don't have public e-mail addresses, according to Chris Casey, a Senate technology adviser who helps Democratic senators go online.

The Senate, however, is moving along at a much faster pace. Of the 100 members, 86 have e-mail addresses, said Casey. Those include Claiborne Pell (senator_pell@pell.senate.gov) and John Chafee (senator_chafee@chafee.senate.gov).

(Casey attributes the Senate lead to the fact that there are fewer Senators and each has a larger constituency than Representatives.)

Casey, who authored a book called The Hill on the Net: Congress Enters the Information Age, says there are some difficulties with e-mail, but those shouldn't - and eventually won't - stop legislators from getting e-mail addresses.

"E-mail is really the most critical component of Internet service a Congressional office can make available," he said.

It gives the average citizen an easy way to participate in government and it provides legislators with instant feedback, he said.

There are problems, but "those are the little kind of bumps in the road or the hiccups that Congress will get used to," said Casey.

Both Pell and Chafee's offices have experienced some bumps and hiccups.

Recently, Pell's systems administrator, Kevin Wilson, had to call the Senate's computer center to halt an endless loop of messages coming into the Senator's mailbox.

A prankster figured out a way to make Pell's e-mail system and another senator's continually send each other an automatic response over and over again.

At Chafee's office, they had to deal with "a ton" of e-mail when the Cleveland Browns moved from Ohio last year, according to press secretary Josie Martin.

But, she said "e-mail is such a convenience for Senator Chafee's constituents that we're willing to put up with some minor inconvenience of some junk e-mail."

Bill Bryant, Pell's spokesman, said the onslaught of e-mail isn't nearly as bad as they thought it would be.

"Everybody was worried about it," he said. But "we haven't had the flood we were expecting."

Bryant said the amount of mail Pell gets varies substantially, depending on the issues of the day. Typically, he may get a few hundred to thousands of postal mail letters and postcards in one week. He may get 100 to 150 e-mail messages during the same period.

Martin of Chafee's office estimated that they get 300 to 400 letters a week and about 100 to 150 e-mail messages.

Both Pell's and Chafee's offices say they handle incoming e-mail the same way regular mail is handled. It's spread out among all the staff to research and answer.

Casey, the author, says its just a matter of time before all legislators make the committment to adopting e-mail. He predicts that soon it will be as commonplace on Capitol Hill as the telephone.

Advances in technology will overcome some of the problems members of Congress are now having, he said.

Software will be able to scan incoming e-mail for a return postal address and pull constituent messages to the top.

It will also be able to figure out the topic of the messages and sort them accordingly.

Of course technology could advance to the point where a computer program could actually write and send out the appropriate response to a constituent without any human intervention.

Then sending e-mail to your Congressman or woman really would be like talking to yourself.

Casey offers these tips in sending e-mail to legislators:

Timothy C. Barmann is a Journal-Bulletin staff writer. His column runs every other Sunday on the On Line page. Send him comments via e-mail at tim@cybertalk.com or U.S. mail, c/o the Journal-Bulletin, 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. 02902.