A scene at the battlefront: Inside the maze of cubicles, women sit at their typewriters, punching thousands of names and addresses onto their lists. Heads do not turn. They type and type and type.
All around them, the automatic robot typewriters hum a concerto of hollow pops and clicks and dings. The machines are programmed to repeat the senator's letter about every 90 seconds.
The typed letters, every one the same, says for the constituents' names and addresses at the top, roll out on an endless ribbon of paper that later will be cut to size stuffed into envelopes and sent on its way.
Soon, in this cubicle, which houses the staff of Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) they will be fighting the war with new weaponary - a computer that will produce the same letters four times as fast. Other congressional offices already have their computers rolling.
It has come to this: One of the American political system's simplest exercises, the letter to your representative or senator, has become a monster of sorts. Computers are talking to computers.
Sophisticated mass-mailing techniques are producing a blizzard of cards and letters that threatens to engulf the Congress. Postal officials report the volume at unprecedented levels and there is no sign that it will slacken.
For if the mails are any indication, the political left and right - especially the right - have discovered the mass technique as a lucrative and powerful way to make an impression on congressional thinking.
Emotion-charged issues ranging from the Panama Canal treaties and abortion to gun-control and labor law reform are the subject of the mass appeals that the political left and right have seized upon in their wish to influence Congress.
The extent of the influence that the personal, mass-mailed appeals really have on the vote of a member of Congress is open to dispute. Mass mailers believe they have a strong impact, although the evidence is not clear. Most legislators and their aides say the mass letters do little more than inform them that a lot of voters are concerned about a particular issue.
John Dolan, chairman of the National Conservative Political Action Committee, believes the mass mail is a powerful influence on congressional voting habits.
"Anyone who says a (pre-printed) postcard is any less representative than a letter . . . anybody who would demean that has no business being a representative. It points out that these clowns are out of touch with the people," he said.
Rep. John Anderson (R-Ill.), whose politics have made him a target of conservative groups in upcoming primary election, responds that the mass mailing has far less effect than Dolan and others believe.
"Most members recognize it and it has a minimal effect on their thinking Generated mail is not all that important in really influencing a decision," he said. "This mailing business is just like a campaign - if you have workers, you have to give them something to do. So they write to their congressmen."
After discovering that some preprinted letters coming to his office had bogus signatures. Rep. Romano L. Mazzoli (D-Ky.) recently cautioned House colleagues to be wary of the mass-appeal mail.
"This mass mailing is about to wipe us out. It is easy to poke fun at, but I don't know how to respond. They go computer, we go computer. We've reached the crazy point of 1984 already. It is weird, upside-down, expensive and almost not productive at all. It is wasteful, delibitating and time consuming. We go in smaller and smaller concentric circles and one of these days we will eat ourselves," Mazzoli said.
Meanwhile, there is no mistaking the logistical impact of mass mail on Congress. Some examples:
Conservative organizations, clients of the mass-mail kingpin, Richard A. Viguerie of Falls Church, last fall sent out some 3 million appeals for money and letters to Congress to oppose the Panama Canal treaties. The pre-printed cards and letters are coming back to Capitol Hill in a flood.
Last year, at the height of the debate in the House over common-site picketing legislation, the office of Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. received some 55,000 pieces of mail in a four-hour period, according to House Postmaster Robert Rota. Virtually all urged passaged of the picketing bill.
Rota reports that the volume of House mail has "more than tripled" since 1972 to a point that more than 100 million pieces come in each year - a huge share of that being of the massmail variety. Senate Postmaster Jay A. Woodall estimates the 1977 mail at 41 million pieces, an increase of 8 million over the previous year.
California's two senators. Cranston and S. I. Hayakawa (R), have become, in a sense, prisoners of their mail. Cranston averages 10,000 letters a week - a third of them of the "generated" sort - and half of his office budget pays for 30 staff aides and the machines to handle and answer the mail. Hayakawa tends to receive more, some weeks as many as 16,000 cards and letters, and 65 percent of his budget is devoted to mail handling.
The week before last was just another of those weeks at the office of Sen. Jacob Javits (R-N.Y.). He received 15,000 postcards on a pending labor reform bill. Cranston got 9,000.
Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.), targeted by conservative groups because his vote is considered crucial, has received more than 37,000 cards and letters, almost all urging him to vote against the Panama treaties. On Thursday alone he got 11,000 cards and letters on various issues.
Dolan of NCPAC and Gary Jarmin of the American Conservative Union, another of the mass-mail practitioners which is a Viguerie client, think that the heavy amounts of letters, if nothing else, make a member of Congress think twice before voting.
"In some cases," Jarmin said," it changes minds, but the mail is significant because it prevents a vacuum from developing. Some members of Congress get the impression they are making a no-risk vote. You try to increase the risk for them and keep the pressure on."
As example might be the case of Sen. John Danforth (R-Mo.), who talked last week about his reaction to the canal treaties. Before seeing the proposed agreements. Danforth announced that he supported Senate approval.
Then the mail deluge hit, with letters and cards from NCPAC, ACU, the Conservative Caucus and others. Danforth decided the anti-treaty reaction was greater than he anticipated and he pulled in his horns. He is now in the "uncommitted" column.
"These mailings make a legislator aware there is a constituency out there that is galvanized on an issue," said James L. Martin, a Vienna, Va., direct-mail political fund-raiser who learned technique under Viguerie.
Another aspect, he continued, is that mass-mail appeals from issue-oriented organizations "motivate" voters to express themselves through a system that is more convenient than the traditional personal letter.
Martin cited Reed Larson, president of the National Right to Work Committee as a man who "perfected" voter-motivation techniques.
The committee has been around for two decades, but in the past three years, with the application of blanket-mailing techniques, its list of contributors has rise from 27,000 to 360,000.
Larson's committee cannot claim outright credit - and it doesn't - but there is strong evidence that its mail campaigns and its practice of "targeting" legislators whose voters are considered vital have borne fruit.
"I hear members of Congress say these mailings have no impact. They are unlikely to say they made up their minds because of the postcards they received - and that may be true in some instances," Larson said.
Hnery (Huck) Walther, who heads the committee's direct-mail operations, said. "No one does what we do in targeting and pinpointing . . . We want to put the politicians in a position where they have to pay a price, campaign harder to win. They see what can happen to each other if they don't pay attention and they don't want that kind of pain."
Impact of the mail is difficult to quantify, but Larson and others think President Ford's veto in 1975 of the contrversial construction site picketing bill is one of the more obvious examples of a campaign that paid off.
The common-site picketing bill was the apple of Big Labor's eye. President Ford originally supported the idea but then switched signals. His labor secretary John T. Dunlop, resigned in protest. Petitioners, some for and some against, peppered Congress with mail.
But during the three months before the congressionally approved measure reached the president's desk, the committee made 4 million mailings, urging voters to keep up the pressure.
White House officials reported "unbeliavable" amounts of mail coming in against the bill. Ford vetoed it, saying one of his main reasons was "the vigorous controversy" it had generated.
Last year when labor tried again. Larson's army was ready. The Right to Work Committee had targeted 85 House votes it decided it needed to the measure on the floor. Other conservative and business groups joined in the pressure campaign.
To the surprise of organized labor and the Democratic leadership, the House defeated the bill by 12 votes. In 1975, there are 178 votes against it. In 1977, there were 217 against.
"A politician will say he does things because of the facts," said Walther. "In Congress, you have people who are solid for or against an issue and maybe a third in the middle who flop around and make political choices to vote for the people they represent.
"By targeting those people, we are trying to hold them accountable to what the people at home think."