Congress Works on New Way to Deliver Mail
By MALIA RULON
The Associated Press
Wednesday, February 4, 2004; 5:32 AM
WASHINGTON - A congressional pilot project that scans letters, pictures and even drawings by children and delivers them electronically to lawmakers could soon make opening mail on Capitol Hill a thing of the past.
The experimental program was started in a dozen House offices after anthrax-tainted powder found in letters sent to two senators in 2001 shut down Capitol Hill office buildings for days.
This week, as the Senate faced its second attack involving a deadly toxin, lawmakers focused on the congressional mail system.
"We may have to change drastically the way we correspond with our constituents," said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan.
The House Administration Committee, which oversees the electronic mail project, plans to expand it to 25 lawmakers by March, using improved software that makes it easier to sort the mail.
"It's another second step of security," said Bob Ney, R-Ohio, chairman of the committee.
Since the anthrax attack, all mail destined for Congress and federal agencies is irradiated at a remote location before being delivered to congressional offices. It often arrives more than a week late and sometimes discolored and brittle.
With digital mail, letters are sent to a facility in Leesburg, Va., and the process is shortened to a few days with mail arriving as scanned images via "pdf" files - electronic documents that can be e-mailed, searched by key words or printed out.
"Our staff has been raving about it," said Helen Hardin, chief of staff for Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn. "We get our mail faster, we get it better and we are able to respond to the constituents that we serve in a much quicker way."
Deron Roberson, spokesman for Rep. Julia Carson, D-Ind., said the system also makes it easier to get rid of junk mail. "We can just delete it," he said.
The voluntary program, which has cost an estimated $5 million to date, started in February 2003 with 12 lawmakers who received their day's mail delivery via a hand-delivered CD-ROM. Four offices dropped out, citing a preference for receiving their mail in hardcopy form.
"They wanted to have their mail physically in front of them and thought they weren't saving time," said House Administration spokesman Brian Walsh. Names of the lawmakers who had dropped out were not immediately available.
The new system logs the name and address of senders, and it delivers the scanned mail directly into each lawmaker's constituent mail system. If the lawmaker wants the hardcopy, they still can get that delivered later, Walsh said.
Robert Hahn, who heads government solutions services for Pitney Bowes Inc., which was hired to operate the pilot project, says corporate demand for electronic mail - called "d-Mail" - has more than doubled since the 2001 anthrax attacks.
"It significantly improves the security in a situation where the document may be at risk for contamination," Hahn said. "Another virtue of this is that it speeds up distribution, and it makes storage and archiving of the document much easier."
No plans have been made to take the pilot project Congress-wide, but Ney said the discovery of deadly ricin in the Senate on Tuesday could change that.
"It makes the discussion of digital mail pop right up to the top," he said.
On the Net:
House Administration Committee: http://www.house.gov/cha/
© 2004 The Associated Press