Finding Fault With Logic of Congress's E-Mail Plan

Eli Pariser, executive director of Moveon.org, says Congress's act of blocking e-mails sent from automated programs is
Eli Pariser, executive director of Moveon.org, says Congress's act of blocking e-mails sent from automated programs is "troubling." (By Spencer Platt -- Getty Images)

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By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Monday, June 12, 2006

Congress to Lobby Groups: Drop Dead!

That could be the headline on the latest development from the House of Representatives. Last month the House quietly began to make it harder for interest groups to send large numbers of e-mails to lawmakers.

Increasingly, citizens are being forced to demonstrate a basic knowledge of mathematics to have any chance of communicating electronically with their congressional offices.

At the end of May, the House started to offer congressmen the chance to add an extra obstacle -- the completion of a math problem -- to their already difficult-to-penetrate e-mail systems. The purpose, officials said, was to cut down on the deluge of messages they receive.

The reaction from K Street has been swift and loud. "It's very disturbing," said Ralph G. Neas, president of People for the American Way.

"We are concerned," agreed David Willett, spokesman for the Sierra Club.

Most offices in the House are pretty impregnable as it is. Generally, before a person can send an e-mail to a member of the House, he or she must go to a lawmaker's Web site, click on "Write Your Rep," select the congressman's state, type in a Zip code that is in that state, and then fill out a form that includes name, address, city, e-mail address and phone number.

And all of that must be completed before an e-mail can either be composed or sent.

Even with these many impediments, lawmakers still bellyache that the torrent of e-mails they get every day is more than their staffs can handle. According to a recent study, electronic messages to the House 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.

So the House's managers are adding what they call a logic puzzle to the hurdles that constituents must already scale before writing e-mails to members. In addition to the Zip code test and others, the system now used by a growing number of lawmakers also asks would-be e-mailers to solve a simple numbers problem.

For example, "What is 5 minus 1?" Or, "24 : What number appears at the beginning of this question?" Or, "Please solve the following math problem: 3 x 1?"

The idea is to ensure that only actual people -- and not mass-mailing computers of the kind often used by interest groups -- will send e-mails to the House from now on.


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