On Capitol Hill, the Inboxes Are Overflowing

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Monday, July 11, 2005

If you think you're swamped by Internet spam, pity the poor Congress.

According to a new study, electronic messages to the House of Representatives doubled to 99 million from 2000 to 2004. In the Senate, the number of e-mails more than tripled to 83 million during the same period.

The result is a crisis of communication in the nation's Capitol. Lawmakers have to struggle to keep from drowning in the deluge while interest groups and their consultants scramble to find new ways to inundate them.

Between legislators and the people who want to influence them, there's open warfare on the Web.

Ever since the 9/11 tragedies and the anthrax attacks on Congress in 2001, postal mail has been pretty useless as a way to contact Capitol Hill. Screeners scrutinize letters so thoroughly and at such length that the documents are hardly worth reading by the time they arrive.

So faxes and e-mails have grown hugely -- e-mails in particular. Thanks to their ease of use and low cost, electronic messages are blasted out all the time by every organized group that has a cause to promote or a bone to pick with elected representatives.

The trouble is that Congress has a hard time keeping track of them all. "While the volume of communications received by Congress has increased dramatically, the total number of staff employed in the personal offices of members of the House and Senate has not changed appreciably in more than 20 years," the study by the Congressional Management Foundation says.

Three-quarters of the congressional office managers contacted by the foundation said they spend more time dealing with constituents' mail than just two years ago. Half of the managers also report that they have had to reallocate resources to keep up. But only 17 percent of the House offices and 38 percent of the Senate offices have their acts together enough to answer all the e-mails they receive with e-mail responses.

Most offices reply to some or all of their e-mail with postal letters, a time consuming and cumbersome chore. The main reason for this is lawmakers fear that their return e-mails might be altered in ways that could create political problems for them.

Which isn't to say that lawmakers don't appreciate the extra attention. They do. Four-fifths of the aides believe that the Internet has made it easier for citizens to get involved in public policy; 55 percent think the Web has increased public understanding of Washington; and 48 percent are convinced that it's made lawmakers more responsive to their voters.

Unfortunately, a lot of the e-mails are barely worth reading -- or at least that's what the people who handle them believe. Interest groups generate most of the incoming e-mails and a numbing percentage of those are form letters. Half of the aides surveyed are convinced that constituents aren't even aware that they've sent such identical-form communications, and another 25 percent of staffers question whether those communications are legitimate at all.

Almost all of the congressional aides surveyed said that they'd like to find a way to differentiate between interest-group e-mails and the rare, more prized missives that individuals actually write themselves.

As one frustrated legislative director told the foundation: "[There is] too much mail, not enough staff. Not enough time to do it, particularly when in session. [We're] really losing sight of the important letters that come in -- like the three-page letter from Grandma as opposed to those floods of mail where all they're doing is clicking a button. It's insane."

"Stop sending form letters/faxes/e-mails that the constituent doesn't even know he/she is sending," a House staffer added. "It's a waste of time and resources and does not influence the members' stance on the issue in any way."

Such complaints are heartfelt but they won't deter the burgeoning e-mail-on-demand industry. Organized interests are so eager to penetrate Congress, which has become fortress-like in its security barriers, that they are hiring Internet experts at a dizzying clip.

There are companies that erect Web sites for interest groups, others that help to target e-mails to congressional aides and offices, and still others that do both. And every one of them is working diligently to make their e-mails look and feel as authentic as possible. Some of the leaders in the field are GetActive Software Inc., Democracy Data & Communications LLC, Kintera Inc., Convio Inc., Vocus Inc., Soft Edge Inc., e-Advocates, and Capitol Advantage LLC which helped to fund the survey.

Barkley A. Kern, chief executive of Capitol Advantage, called the foundation's findings "vital." His firm and others want desperately to make e-mailed messages to Congress appear real, not canned -- even when, for the most part, they are.

Industry insiders, of course, take umbrage at the notion that their e-mails are anything but genuine. "We know that personalized messages are more effective and we hear that loud and clear from the study," Kern said. "We are taking pretty aggressive steps to make sure the messages that go through us are legitimate and sincere."

Capitol Advantage's system, for example, encourages e-mailers to add personal information to their texts such as the name of the company they work for, whether they vote, and their age. The system also asks people to type in a code before they can send an e-mail to Congress as a way to prove to its recipients that an actual human, and not an automated machine, actually approved the dispatch.

Many legislators try to discourage mass mailings by regularly altering the e-mail templates that they keep on their official Web sites. But the e-mail generators manage to stay a step ahead of them. The companies that route e-mails to Congress constantly monitor bounced-back messages as a way to locate the switcheroos and then quickly change their own procedures to ensure that the e-mails find their mark.

And once the e-mails penetrate Congress, staffers, for all their griping, usually take them into account. The survey shows that congressional offices at least tally and take note of the vast majority of electronic messages they receive, even if they are mass produced.

Lawmakers and their staffs may pray that, some day, lobby groups will pour fewer e-mails on them. But the ingenuity of professional advocates and their experts-on-call will almost surely overwhelm that hope.

"The use of e-mails to Congress is going to continue to grow significantly," said B.R. McConnon, president of Democracy Data & Communications. "There isn't a more efficient way to get messages to Congress these days and that's just the way it is."

Jeffrey Birnbaum writes about the intersection of government and business every other Monday. E-mail him atkstreetconfidential@washpost.com.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company