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

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

"This feature has been designed to minimize the amount of mass e-mail generated by automated programs," wrote Jay Eagen, the House's chief administrative officer, in a note to House members.

From lawmakers' perspective, the new barrier is a good way to block millions of cookie-cutter lobby letters that are conceived and created by giant trade associations, labor unions and the like. According to some lawmakers, these often-identically worded missives too often come from people who don't live in the congressman's districts or who don't even know that messages have been sent in their names. In other words, these pleas are either misdirected or fraudulent.

Such meaningless messages, these lawmakers contend, take too much time away from their overworked aides and give a false impression of public sentiment to boot.

Interest-group leaders vehemently disagree. E-mails have become the communication of choice on Capitol Hill. They're cheap, easy to use and, unlike postal letters, they aren't delayed by weeks of inspection, which was necessitated by the anthrax attack on the Senate soon after Sept. 11, 2001.

Lobbying groups also object on principled grounds. How does it make sense, they ask, for elected representatives to erect walls between themselves and their constituents, rather than take them down? Isn't democracy supposed to be about listening to voters?

"It is troubling," said Eli Pariser, executive director of, the liberal Internet-based organization. "We should be living in the golden age of politics -- an age in which every member of Congress can easily have a two-way conversation with his or her most engaged constituents. Instead, we're seeing bunkerization."

"This is a significant threat to digital democracy," agreed Bill Pease, chief technology officer of GetActive Software Inc., a vendor of public policy programs for the Web. "It assumes anyone who participates in any organization's online advocacy campaign is not to be trusted."

And then there's the fundamental question of fairness. "Why do I have to answer math questions in order to be able to speak with my own congressman?" asked Pam Fielding, president of e-Advocates, an Internet and grass-roots advocacy consultant.

Critics have long seen Congress's aversion to e-mail as troubling. "It seems like congressional offices are spending more time 'sealing off the borders' than dealing with the inescapable truth that most people prefer to communicate via e-mail," said Douglas G. Pinkham, president of the Public Affairs Council, a nonprofit group that teaches corporations how to deal with Washington. "It makes me wonder if this is going to deter a lot of average folks from contacting their members of Congress."

Pinkham believes the solution to e-mail overload is for congressmen to add more staffers, not to reduce the number of e-mails they receive.

It's hard to argue with him, except for this: E-mail companies are already well on their way to circumventing the "logic puzzles" and will almost certainly defeat the gimmick soon. "The fact is that the technology firms working in the space will find work-arounds to the problem," Fielding said.

On a single day last week, of the 8,262 times the logic puzzle was viewed in the House, only 1,568 people answered it and moved on to send a message -- a 19 percent success rate. It's unknowable whether this means that computers could not crack the code or whether actual humans were frustrated and gave up (though there were probably a combination of both).

In the meantime, lobbies, on behalf of their citizen advocates, are kicking up a ruckus. "What we've been doing -- and what the [political] right has been doing -- contributes to a more robust democracy and it ought to be welcomed," said Neas of People for the American Way.

Unfortunately, in the House of Representatives, it isn't.

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum writes about the intersection of government and business every other Monday. His e-mail address iskstreetconfidential He will be online to discuss lobbying, lawmaking and e-mail at 12:30 p.m. today at

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