Sluggish e-mail plagues Senate

Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan testified before the Senate Banking Committee Tuesday morning, prompting a gush of e-mail that backed up the Senate's e-mail system for more than half an hour. But that's modest compared to the deluge of e-mail that followed Attorney General John Ashcroft's appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee in January. The e-mail about the then-nominee backed up in the Senate system for hours.

Last fall, as the disputed presidential election and recount in Florida dragged on, the e-mail onslaught basically shut down the Senate's public e-mail system, its administrators say.

The system, based on Lotus Development Corp's cc:Mail, is "archaic" and has trouble keeping up with the ever-increasing volume of e-mail, the administrator for a senior Democrat said. Lotus is phasing out cc:Mail, and a plan to replace it remains tied up in the Senate Rules Committee, he said.

As recently as 1998, the House impeachment of President Clinton triggered hundreds of thousands of e-mails a week to Congress. But today, events like the Ashcroft confirmation hearing generate millions of messages.

The e-mail system has been upgraded since 1998, but not enough. "When we had the Monica Lewinsky thing, the system got hit and it went down. Now it doesn't go down, but there are significant delays," the administrator said.

There are three categories of e-mail in the Senate and all are affected to varying degrees.

The greatest delays are in delivery of e-mail coming in from the public. It is often delayed for hours and occasionally for days. The incoming volume is enormous, bloated by automated mass mailings from special-interest groups. Internal Senate e-mail, such as messages from senators' personal staffers to committee staffers, is often delayed for several hours to a day or more. Interoffice e-mail is sometimes delayed for a few hours. In some instances, e-mail messages from constituents "are being bounced back as undeliverable" by the Senate's overloaded system, a Senate staff member said.

It's "fairly serious," agreed a technology consultant who advises members of Congress on office operations. "People have gotten used to a fast response to e-mail. But what should take a few minutes now takes hours."

Typically, there is about a four-hour lag between the time an e-mail is sent and when it is received, a Senate committee staff member said. "It's gotten to the point where I tell people to just call me if it's anything time-sensitive."

The problem is that the Senate e-mail system "is really not designed to handle this kind of volume," said Tracy Williams, director of technology development for the Senate Sergeant at Arms Office, which administers the system.

"We continue to throw hardware and software at it to increase what it can handle," but predicting what the next peak will be has been a problem, especially with the growing number of organizations that "bombard" Senate offices with automated e-mail, he said.

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