Masthead CMC Magazine / April 1, 1996

Email Goes to Washington

by Amelia DeLoach

In this electronic age when all kinds of information flows quickly and easily, snail mail is still the preferred way people contact their United States Congressperson.

Dwight Sullivan, a staffer for Representative Melvin Watt, Democrat of North Carolina, puts their communications count at 35 emails/day to 50 phone calls/day, and 200 cards and letters/day. Representative Bill Luther's office estimates that they receive approximately 25 email messages/day compared to 45 phone calls/day, and 75 letters/day. Pete Peterson, a staffer for Representative Curt Weldon, Republican of Pennsylvania, noted, their office receives only 3 to 4 emails from constituents each day, accounting for less than 5 percent of the over all correspondence received from their district, according to an informal survey by CMC Magazine.

Given these numbers, it is not surprising that they view email as "just another form of communication to be taken into consideration," according to one press secretary.

Of about 240 U.S. congressional and senatorial offices which have electronic mail capability, these senators and representatives receive an average of 25 messages per day. In turn, they use email themselves to collect constituents opinions just as they do with snail mail and telephone.

For now, email and snail mail are being handled in the same manner and probably will be for some time to come. Technology Advisor to the Senate Democratic Technology and Communications Committee, Chris Casey, explains, "Although the amount of email is growing rapidly, it is still only a trickle compared to the volume of snail mail received in Congressional offices. All of the mechanisms in an office are geared towards sending letters in response to letters."

[]Casey updates us about online activities in the Senate. Most offices have a Correspondence Management System (CMS) in place that keeps track of constituents and their writing histories, and the office's library of reply letters. These CMS systems have not yet been integrated with email, Casey explains. Only a few offices have designed their system to allow for email replies, but still only to constituents, Casey noted.

While the comparative number of email messages to phone calls and letters is low, the degree of interactivity required by CMC is high, prompting at least one office to delay using email responses. "We don't want to get in the habit of responding via email because it encourages people to chat and we don't have the time or the personnel for that," said Todd Boulin, press secretary for Representative Bob Clement, Democrat of Tennessee.

Another reason why staffers are wary of responding via email is because a large number of people who send messages reside outside of their senator or representative's district. Because of this, most automatic responses from an office requests that if the sender did not include their mailing address in the message, to resend the message with their mailing address. "At this point with the mail system, we're concerned with hearing from our own constituents, " said Beth Bezirgan, press secretary for Representative Bobby Rush, Democrat of Illinois.

But batch mailings--such as those prompted by the Communications Decency Act--blanket congressional email boxes, typically making the number of messages from constituents a fraction of those received. Christopher Barbee, press secretary for Representative Vernon Ehlers, Republican of Michigan, notes that Ehler's office receives about 50 messages a day with about 10 to 15 of those being from constituents. Press secretaries unanimously agree that many writers could help their cause by focusing their efforts towards their own representatives instead of sending messages to everyone in the House and Senate. "I don't think a lot of people understand that my boss is from an urban area whose constituency isn't affected by Utah's land management issues," Bezirgan said. "We can't do anything for those folks than vote for them."

Despite these very real issues, current trends signal a change. Susan Sullam, press secretary for Representative Benjamin Cardin, Democrat of Maryland, points out that while their office began using email in February of 1995, the number of messages they've received have increased as more people get Internet access or find out about Representative Cardin's email address. For instance, in November 1995 they received 679 messages. The next month they counted around 900, with only 172 of them from Maryland.

Another emerging trend is the use of electronic delivery to send messages about all kinds of popular issues--not just the concerns of the Internet-savvy. Sullam noted that for December 1995, most of their email messages were in response to issues such as the peacekeeping mission in Bosnia, the budget, Medicare, the government shutdown, and the environment. Staffers noticed that emailers views' were split between conservative and liberal stances. Only one respondent commented that messages from their constituency tended to be more conservative than other forms of communication.

Do staffers anticipate that the Internet will change how they do business? Definitely. Boulin notes that responding via snail mail to email messages doesn't "take full advantage of the technology, but having the personnel to respond to email is something we're looking at down the line."

Amelia DeLoach ( is a graduate of the M.S. program in Technical Communication at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Copyright © 1996 by Amelia DeLoach. All Rights Reserved.

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