K Street Confidential

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 12, 2006; 12:30 PM

K Street Confidential columnist Jeffrey Birnbaum was online to discuss the intersection between government and business on Monday, June 12 at 12:30 p.m. ET .

In this week's column , he examines the House's plan to make it harder for interest groups to send mass e-mails to lawmakers. He also wrote about the topic on Sunday: Loophole a Spigot for E-Mail .

A transcript follows .

K Street Confidential appears every other Monday in the Washington Post business section.


Jeffrey Birnbaum: Hi All!

Thanks for dropping by for the chat.

We have a new outrage on Capitol Hill--at least in my view.

It's the subject of my new column. The House is offering its members a chance to make it even harder for citizens to write e-mails to their representatives.

Is that a good idea? A bad one? Please let me know.

And don't be afraid to ask me thing about other official Washington stories. I've been around a long time. Long enough to know better, I know. But at least I can take a stab at answering your questions.

So, let's begin.


Washington, D.C.: Why is Congress turning to math questions, rather than the words embedded in images seen on many Web sites to prevent automated transmissions?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: That's one good question among many that someone can ask about the new system in the House of Representatives to add a simple numbers problem to the gauntlet of things that a would-be e-mailer to Congress must go through.

There are probably a lot of ways that are less taxing than the numbers game that has been set in the path of people who want to communicate with their elected officials.


Sanibel, Fla.: A further comment on your story this morning: K Street's infatuation with mass e-mails to the Congress, and Congress' appropriate defenses simply underline the point that this kind of communication doesn't work -- and never has. If they were effective, Congress wouldn't be openly erecting electronic barriers. This is further proof that lobbyists and corporate America still don't understand how to harness the power of the Internet in targeted, interactive lobbying.

Richard K. Cook

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I'm not sure you're right about this one.

I think that e-communications will become increasingly important. It will also be the way that constituents and their leaders discuss significant issues of the day.

Maybe e-mailing isn't that great now--and it will never be as effective as meetings in person.

But it is the future. And probably the present, too.


Sanibel, Fla.: In Sunday's piece, you were correct to remind us that election campaigns were very late coming to the Internet, mostly starting in 2004, even though static Web sites began in 1996. When do you think K Street will come to the Internet in forms other than artificial turf and mass spam campaigns?

washingtonpost.com: Loophole a Spigot for E-Mail

Jeffrey Birnbaum: All sorts of gimmicks are well on their way to development already.

These include e-mailed videos, which I suggest will become increasingly popular both in elections and in lobbying campaigns.

E-communications via cell phones will also make contacting lawmakers more immedidate, I predict.

If anyone out there has another tick or two to mention, please write in!


Baltimore, Md.: I thought your column indirectly raised a point I don't understand. I am a political junkie, and I know who is who on the various committees, both House and Senate. I often try and send an e-mail to a Congressman who is not my representative in order to register my opinion/express a viewpoint. These e-mails are rejected, commonly, as I'm not a constituent. Although the Representatives do serve a particular district, they also serve the taxpayer at large - so why is the system allowed to prevent anyone but residents of the district contact a congressman?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: You raise a very insightful point.

I ask the same question. It strikes me as completely wrong that lawmakers will accept e-mails only from constituents. So many lawmakers have national policy making roles. Shouldn't they be willing, even eager, to hear from people across the country?

I think they should. But the system deeply ingrained on Capitol Hill allows congressmen to slip out from under this responsibility. They are firm in saying they only want to hear from their own constituents--unless, of course, someone from outside of their district or state wants to give them a campaign contribution.

That strikes me as wrong, wrong, wrong. Don't you agree?


Washington, D.C.: A question about today's column -- an honest question, not a veiled criticism ...

I see that PFAW, Sierra Club and MoveOn.org were the "partisan" advocacy groups that were quoted. All three are from the Left.

Is that because the Left uses mass e-mails more often/more effectively than the Right? Or is it simply that those were the people who called back?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: The story also quotes Doug Pinkham from the Public Affairs Council, which, in effect, represents corporate interests in Washington.

I interviewed groups on the Left this time in part because I think I write too much about corporate lobbying interests in general. I don't believe that interests are confined to one side of the political spectrum.

They are all lobby groups and I try to be even handed about discussing issues that all of them care about.

This is one issue that is of equal concern to both the Left and the Right.


Northeast, D.C.: Why should I be upset that members of Congress want to be assured that the e-mail messages they receive are coming from living, breathing humans instead of automated computers? Seems like a pretty legitimate concern to me.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I guess it is a fine concern.

But is the method of deterimining who is human and who is a computer the correct one? Is mathematical literacy the right test?

I kept having visions of poll taxes and other subtle but nastily effective methods of preventing blacks from voting years ago.

Besides, don't you think that our elected representatives should have a higher willingness to listen to voters? Shouldn't they be more tolerant of the inconvenience of mass mailings--in the cause of open democracy?

That's where I come down on this one, anyway. But other can, and surely do, disagree.


Katy,Texas: Jeffrey, the recent USA Today revelation about the government gathering data from phone companies raised my indignation level to the point where I wrote individual, non-obscene e-mails to five senators(the two from my state, one from a former state, and two whose positions seemed relevant). Sadly, one of my own senators, Cornyn, required that I jump through repeated and mostly inane questions to prove my personhood. Is it not possible, for the senators to put screens on their end, to boot out perhaps the third identical message? If a citizen, and certainly a constituent takes the time to write to them, somebody in the office should at least read the message...Jackie

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I agree with you. But I am not an expert in e-mail technology. I don't know what would be a better filter for "spam." Surely, however, there must be one. If not, I like the suggestion made by Doug Pinkham of the Public Affairs Council--add more congressional staff!


Princeton, N.J.: I'm going to have to disagree with you on this. (And it's not because I am a mathematician.) I happen to believe the Supreme Court was wrong in Buckley, and the money is not the same as speech. If the little puzzles prevent people with big bucks and big computers from monopolizing our representative's time, I'm all for it.

BTW, these puzzles are nowhere near as annoying as try to reach a major company. They ignore e-mail, and on the phone... I had to call Verizon this morning. I had to give my phone number 3 times before I got to a person, and then she wouldn't talk to me until I gave her some secret number on my bill which I never got. Then she went away, and I got another person who asked me for my phone number!

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Fair enough.

But we do disagree. I think average folks should be encouraged to contact their elected representatives, not discouraged by a long list of questions.

I worry in general that voters see themselves as alienated from Washington rather than part of the process. Making it such a pain in the butt to get through to Congress only adds to that problem.

As for the big bucks complaint, I'm with you on that one. But how do you decide which organization is a white hat and which a black hat? There are plenty of groups that use computers that I'm sure you would agree with entirely.

Lobbying is done by ORGANIZED interests. The federal government is too big for anything but those to succeed here. I'm not always a fan of the way that money wins, of course. But shutting the door entirely is also not the answer--in my humble view.


Aurora, Ohio: I see where congressmen have created a new category of spam...unsolicited emails from constituents...and devised a devious way to block this spam. I'd like to learn a way to block unsolicited emails from congressmen, which, at times, are much more overwhelming than any commercial spam.

Daniel Dougherty

Jeffrey Birnbaum: You are correct to worry on that side of the calculation.

I wrote this weekend about a loophole in campaign funding rules that will encourage rich people to send tons of e-mail to constituents in heavily contested races.

Those e-mails can be sent without limit and without the need for the e-mailers to report publicly how much they are spending on the "political spam."


Astoria, N.Y.: How much weight do you think politicians give correspondence from their districts? I know it is important to include your address as that lets them know you are actually in their district and that you can vote for them (or not vote for them). Personally, I shun all the mass e-mailings from organizations as I doubt they have the same influence as a well thought e-mail from a constituent. Anyway, is there any information (research, etc.) that provides more insight as to how seriously congressional offices take correspondence in any form? Am I better off writing or faxing a letter? I use e-mail often to my elected officials. Thanks

Jeffrey Birnbaum: E-mails that are written personally do carry weight, or at least so I am told.

But congressional offices log all communications, at least the good ones.

A floor of messages on a subject gets the attention of elected leaders.

The reason is they care about three things: getting reelected, getting reelected, and getting reelected.

Mass produced e-mails don't carry the same weight as a personal visit, a personal letter or a personal e-mail, but they are read and counted.


Re: Constituent communications: Members of Congress only accept communications from their constituents regardless of the method of communication, be it e-mail, snail mail, faxes or phone calls. That's the way it ALWAYS has been and, YES, I do believe that is appropriate. A member of the House is elected to represent his constituents, not the entire country. Plus, it is unfeasible to expect a member of Congress to respond to every communication if there is not some limit placed on them.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Yes, that is the argument. I don't know if I buy it for senior members of Congress, leaders of the parties and top members of key committees, however.

What do you think about there?!


Washington, D.C.: Has anyone yet found a Congressman who couldn't correctly answer one of the "logic puzzles" on the House website?

Here's hoping that the fourth estate asks the same questions of Members that they're asking of the public, a la Nightline's investigation a few weeks ago that yielded several Members who didn't know all the words to the National Anthem.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Good question.

So, Mr. Leader, what is 5 minus 1, quick!


Germantown, Md.: Yes, I have noticed they make it very difficult to get your message to a member of the Congress especially. They make you look up your 4 digit zip code extension. You have to pick a topic from THEIR list. Forget picking your own. Then you get a form letter back. I wrote my senator four times, called both her offices and she STILL voted for that useless immigration bill!

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Yes, it is hard to get through, especially via e-mail.

Then again, you really shouldn't expect that the lawmakers will always agree with you.

That's a different expectation entirely.


Math literacy?: If a person is smart enough to use a computer, I think that he or she is smart enough to answer a question like "What is one plus two?" I have seen the system and I don't think they are asking for the cube root of the derivative of the cosine of a 42 degree angle. Equating this to a "poll tax" is irresponsible. You should be ashamed of yourself.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: You should be a little more tolerant of people who disagree with you. That's what I think.


Sugar Land, Texas: Do you have totals for all of the money that politicians get for voting for special projects? Including money that wives and associates get?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I wish I did. It would be a very large number. Then again, it is illegal for lawmakers to take money for themselves and their families in exchange for a specific official act. So, officially, that number is zero--until prosecutors prove otherwise.


Ontario, Calif.: Jeff,

I was hoping that - unlike the Republicans - the Congressional Democrats would not kownow to the personal interests and ambitions of their more corrupt members. What is the status of ethically challenged Congressman William Jefferson's committee membership(s)? I understand that he still has the support of many Cogressional Democrats, while others are concerned about the political ramifications of not taking a harder line on his situation. Personally, I'm in the latter camp! What's going on here?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Last I heard Democrats were considering throwing Jefferson off of the House Ways and Means Committee, the chamber's tax-writing panel.

Clearly, a lot of Democrats would like Jefferson to go away so that they might have a better chance of criticizing Republicans for being "corrupt."

It may be too late for them to salvage that issue for themselves, however.


Washington, D.C.: Thanks for doing this chat! There seems to be a huge disparity between the number of 527 organizations that the Democrats and Republicans have. Why do you think that is and what are the biggest issues that are resonating these days?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Democrats have from the beginning had better luck getting tons of dough from rich individuals. Corproate givers of the kind that often lean Republican are wary of the legal status of 527 groups, as they should be. That's one reason why Dem-leaning 527s outnumber the GOP's. Also, labor unions appear to favor the 527 organizations, and unions, of course, tend to be heavily Democratic.


Washington, D.C.: The math problems are at least a step forward in authenticating that an actual human is sending the message. Too many Web sites use distorted characters against a noisy background, with the idea that only a person can tell the letter or number from the background noise. Unfortunately, the computers have gotten smarter, and in reply the distortions have gotten to the point where humans quite often cannot correctly guess what letters or numbers were used.

Still, as inpenetrable as the Hill's e-mail system is, it is better than the recent e-mail I received from the RNC. The RNC promised, in return for a small donation, to cut back on the number of e-mails that it sends me.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I love that. Thanks!

Could you please send me that RNC e-mail offer to my column's e-mail address?

It's kstreetconfidential@washpost.com



Alexandria, Va.: This is ridiculous. Congress takes steps to cut down on spam and allow the voices of individual constituents to be heard more clearly and you're complaining? Perhaps Congress should eliminate their spam filters as well so they can hear from the v1-gra lobbies as well.

If the examples you give in your column are any indication any 7 year old could solve them. Do you honestly think that an adult who cannot solve 3x1 is capable of sending e-mail?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I think that some constituents would rather not be bothered with taking the time to go through so many steps. And I believe that that sort of discouragement is the last thing that our already teetering democratic system needs. I don't doubt that people can complete the logic puzzles. I doubt that the extra effort needed to complete the mutli-tiered e-mail questionaire is being pushed in the right spirit. Lawmakers ought to encourage--in other words, make it simple for--voters to contact them. Not make it harder.


Washington, D.C.: It's OK with me if they only accept e-mail from constituents, as long as they only accept money from constituents.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Now we have the connection . . .


Ontario, Calif.: Jeff,

I thought that the Black Caucus blocked the attempt to throw Jefferson off of Ways and Means...not so?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: That's one reason, yes. Actions rarely have just one cause in the nation's capital, however.


Olympia, Wash.: What happened to the idea of open government? Seems like the Internet and e-mail finally gave us "little folks" out in the real world the opportunity to give our elected officials some real feedback. They don't like that?

Is there anyone in Congress who could direct the design of a filtering system to at least extract the summation of the myriad thoughts, and select representative emails to read? Lots of solutions in this tech world, where are the bright folks in the ivory towers to lead those solutions?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: If someone could do that, I bet they could make a bundle. Certainly there's a technology out there that could filter out mass-producted "spam" better than a logic puzzle, don't you think?


Columbus Ohio: I don't think it's a horrific imposition to ask a constituent to demonstrate their sincerity and passion for an issue by asking them to solve a simple math "problem." I'm worried if they can't do that much.

I see that the firms who provide such services are trying to claim the moral high ground by invoking the "D" word -- we are ending democracy as we know it if this practice continues. Why? Because, depending on their client contracts, they get paid based on the # of e-mails sent and received.

If I were them, I'd be concerned, too, but let's all be aware of the etiology of this.

These e-mails are no different than form letters, which every grassroots group worth belonging to knows don't work. What's the issue?

And, there is research which demonstrates, via a regression analysis, that there is no correlation between email volume and changing a legislator's mind. What does matter? The number of face to face meetings and whether a legislator won by a large margin in his or her last election.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Some are form letters, some are not. But clearly this issue has two sides. You are on one of them. But I'm so glad to see that everyone is in on this one.

Anyone else?


Jeffrey Birnbaum: Well . . .

That was a fiery chat!

I see there's a lot of disagreement on this subject.

That's good.

Let's meet and disagree again after my next column in a couple weeks.

Thanks and cheers!


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