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  • By Chris Carr
    Special to The Washington Post
    Tuesday, January 26, 1999; Page A17

    The wired public has been crowding America's newest soapbox, the ever-growing electronic mail services, so heavily during the historic impeachment of President Clinton that it has sent both the House of Representatives and the Senate into high-tech tailspins.

    When the House Judiciary Committee and then the full House considered articles of impeachment, as many as 1 million e-mails came storming in each day, compared with the average 80,000 that generally show up daily. When the electronic rapid fire turned on the Senate in early January, the Senate was forced to upgrade its technology following a backlog that overloaded its e-mail system and delayed incoming messages up to a week.

    The especially high outpouring of e-mails began after independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report on President Clinton was released in September. But the height of the bombardment in the Senate came when more than 500,000 e-mails arrived on Jan. 6, again on Jan. 7 and yet again on Jan. 8 the day before, the day of and the day following the start of the impeachment trial in the Senate.

    "This is the most we've ever seen," said Elizabeth McAlhany, director of customer relations for the U.S. Senate's Sergeant At Arms. "We are at an all-time high."

    For now, that is. Last week, e-mail numbers were reported back down close to a daily average of 70,000 to 80,000. But with the climax of the impeachment trial yet to come, McAlhany and others are bracing for possibly another record in e-mail numbers before the fate of President Clinton is decided.

    The House had planned and completed a $2.8 million upgrade to its computer system before Clinton went to trial, and this upgrade helped handle the increase in electronic political activism, said Jason Poblete, communications director for the House.

    The Senate wasn't so lucky. The e-mail avalanche during the opening days of the Senate impeachment trial backed up the computers. "The e-mail became very difficult to deliver on time, and we were delayed tremendously," McAlhany said. "Since then, we've added more technology by replacing some hardware, improving software and adding hardware."

    Geoff Schwartzman, deputy press secretary for Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), said Warner's office, for instance, has seen triple the usual amount of e-mail messages in recent weeks about 1,000 electronic messages as the impeachment trial presses forward.

    The e-mails outnumbered incoming phone calls by large margins, according to a number of lawmakers' offices.

    McAlhany said e-mail volume returned to nearly average last week. But when the impeachment trial nears a conclusion or some other controversial or emotional event occurs, McAlhany said, she expects another electronic outpouring.

    But she says her staff will be ready next time.

    "We're taking more technology steps, some things like changing how we deliver the [electronic] mail and some infrastructure improvements," McAlhany said.

    The e-mails from the public enter the Capitol's network at one central server computer and are filtered to their specific addresses from there. This is where the jam occurred in early January.

    "We had the technology to handle a doubling or tripling of e-mails. But we couldn't go from 70,000 a day to 500,000," she said. "We just simply did not have the capacity in place to route that much. So we had to upgrade."

    A spokeswoman in the office of Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) said the senator welcomed the increased electronic activism: "We think it's a good thing."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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