Voters, Interest Groups Give House Earful
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 16, 1998; Page A25
Benumbed congressional staffers confessed they had never seen anything like it. Telephone systems crashing, four-inch thick piles of faxes every 12 hours, thousands upon thousands of e-mail messages piling up in computer queues, telephone voice mails choked with calls.
If the nation used to be indifferent to impeachment, the nation was certainly paying attention yesterday. With votes to come perhaps as early as tomorrow, the House was getting buried beneath an avalanche of opinions.
Much of the onslaught appeared to be ginned up by interest groups of the left and right, but some of it came from individuals, businesses, families and even groups of concerned friends. And the majority of it was emphatic, furious, even condemnatory:
"I am a voter and I am angry. Impeachment is ridiculous. Get this over with," said one unidentified electronic messenger. "Bill Clinton is a weazel. Please impeach him," wrote another. "End this abomination," said a third. "I want him impeached now," said a fourth.
In the office of Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Texas), the e-mail traffic was so heavy that staffers could no longer message each other. One frustrated faxer, unable to reach Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas), asked Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.) to pass his message along:
"I guess you are not called 'the Hammer' for nothing," the faxer told DeLay. "Yes, indeed, 'apathetic Americans' around the nation are witnessing in full technicolor the self-destruction of the Republican Party! Talk about justice! Thank you from the bottom of my heart."
Some frustrated interest groups, unable to ram through their faxes and e-mails, turned for help to the traditional telegram. Others turned to the even more traditional press release.
"The Feminist Majority joins with our sister organizations, and indeed the majority of women in this nation, in a united call to action to help stop this impeachment spectacle," Eleanor Smeal, president of an alliance of 19 liberal women's groups, said in a statement issued to Capitol Hill reporters.
Not so, said Carmen Pate, president of the conservative Concerned Women for America, a 500,000-member organization that has pulled together over 45,000 petitions supporting impeachment. "The line needs to be drawn," Pate said in an interview. "Women -- moms, sisters, daughters, working women -- all across America are ready to see the president held accountable."
Everywhere, staffers and members reported being inundated. Frustrated constituents unable to reach House members called senators instead, and the overflow reached the Senate press gallery, where aides tried to speak kindly. "I don't want to talk to voice mail," responded one enraged caller.
But though the public may have vented some anger on Congress's leaders and anyone else on Capitol Hill willing to listen, the full potential of the electronic age was felt principally by the dwindling number of House members who have not yet made up their minds on impeachment.
Rep. Jay Dickey (R-Ark.) was getting so many out-of-state e-mails from the anti-impeachment organization Censure and Move On that he had his office computers block out the group's messages.
But if Censure and Move On, a team effort made up of the civil liberties group People for the American Way and the grass-roots Internet group www.moveon.org, was a pest, at least its e-mails were easily identifiable and clearly marked.
Of less certain origin were a barrage of e-mails received by Rep. Brian P. Bilbray (R-Calif.) and others from something called "Impeach Bill Clinton and Al Gore, Please," which offered several variations on the theme that "William Jefferson Clinton . . . and Al Gore should be further investigated." Most of these missives were signed, but the outraged constituents forgot to fill out the template in a couple of cases, leaving "(your name, address, city, state and zip code)" as their signatures.
With the organizations adding to the already intense impeachment traffic, members were overwhelmed. Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) had 12,676 e-mails in his in-basket at noon. In one three-hour period, Tauzin received out-of-town faxes from Atlanta; Glen Ellyn, Ill.; Colchester, Vt.; Albany, Calif.; Chino Valley, Ariz.; Colorado Springs; Port St. Lucie, Fla.; Louisa, Ky.; Paris; and the U.S. embassy in Pretoria, South Africa.
The phones were so busy that staffers in the office of Rep. Virgil H. Goode Jr. (D-Va.) office couldn't call Virginia. Staffers in the district office of an undecided Republican couldn't call Washington. Staffers in Bilbray's San Diego and Washington offices couldn't call either way.
For the interest groups, impeachment was not just a matter of principle but also a powerful mechanism to build membership and add new contributors. Michael Lux, People for the American Way's political director, said his organization has added members while delivering more than 300,000 anti-impeachment petitions and letters and opening a toll-free telephone line.
Randy Tate, executive director of the pro-impeachment Christian Coalition, said coalition members were using a specially developed computer software called Inhouse Lobbyist, which allows them to draft letters and e-mail them to any or all members of Congress. In addition, the coalition can send draft letters, which members can download, modify and send along to their representative and senators.
"This is the ultimate vote on right or wrong," Tate said. "This is about the precedent we are going to set for our children. If we hold the president to a lower standard, what is the message to the average Joe or a soccer mom?"
But the interest groups' canned outrage seemed somehow diminished when stacked against the anguished remonstrances of ordinary citizens, like the five women from Louisa, Ky., who faxed Tauzin a handwritten note:
"Since you are a representative, I consider you my representative, even if you aren't from my state," the note said. "I am kindly asking you NOT to impeach our president."
Or the pro-impeachment New Yorker who wrote: "Dear Housemember, the children that I counsel see Bill Clinton as a poor excuse for a president." Or this from Phoenix: "How can I explain to my grandson that integrity and honesty are important and necessary for success and fulfillment in this world?"
By midafternoon, the swing members had largely overdosed on opinions. Tauzin said that he "read reams" of messages in the morning "just to get a sense of what people think," but that the final decision will come "from inside me."
In other members' offices, staffers reflected similar views. Many had stopped tabulating how many callers or faxers were "for" or "against," partly because they couldn't count fast enough, but mostly because their bosses were now beyond outside help or influence.
Still, themes had begun to appear. Many pro-impeachment messengers made biblical appeals to principle. Don't be afraid of public opinion, said an e-mail from Colorado Springs: "Remember, the mob (the polls of the first century A.D.) chose Barabbas to be freed over Jesus Christ. Do you think Pilate is remembered well for this travesty of justice?"
For the anti-impeachment forces, the message was payback: "I will never vote for another Republican for as long as I live. This also goes for my husband and children," a Baton Rouge, La., woman told Tauzin. "I fully believe that you think the American people are going to forget this by the year 2000. Guess again."
Perhaps unique in the groundswell of national fury was the e-mail sent by a Dallas man to soothe Shays's painful and public self-doubts: "You are absolutely one of my favorites in Washington," the man wrote. "I understand your angst, frustration and confusion over your upcoming vote. Vote your conscience, and both you and I will be happy and content."
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