Slow e-mail dogs Senate

When Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan testified before the Senate Banking Committee Feb. 13, an ensuing gush of messages backed up the Senate's e-mail system for half an hour.

But that pales against the onslaught of e-mail that followed Attorney General John Ashcroft's appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee in January, which backed up the system for hours.

Based on Lotus Development Corp's cc:Mail, the system is "archaic" and has trouble keeping up with the increasing volume of e-mail, said the administrator for a senior Democrat, who asked not to be named. 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 the sending of hundreds of thousands of e-mails a week to Congress. But today, events such as the Ashcroft confirmation hearing generate millions of messages. Although the e-mail system has been upgraded since 1998, it remains inadequate, the administrator said.

All categories of Senate e-mail are affected to varying degrees. But the greatest delays are in delivery of e-mail 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.

In some instances, e-mail messages from constituents "are being bounced back as undeliverable" by the Senate's overloaded system, according to a Senate staff member.

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."

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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