Report: Congress awash in e-mail

It's tempting to fire off an e-mail message to your congressman when an issue comes up that you care about — so tempting that Congress is being overwhelmed by more than 6.5 million e-mail messages a month.

Members of Congress received 80 million e-mail messages in 2000, according to the Congress Online Project.

That's as many as 8,000 e-mail messages for House members and as many as 55,000 for Senators — far more than congressmen and their staffs can read, let alone answer. E-mail volume is up from 20 million messages in 1998 and 48 million in 1999.

"Rather than enhancing democracy, as so many hoped, e-mail has heightened tensions and public disgruntlement with Congress," the Congress Online Project said in a report that will be released today. Citizens are frustrated because many congressmen do not respond to e-mails, and congressmen are frustrated because e-mailers do not appear to understand why responses are impossible.

The problem is at least three-fold, according to Congress Online, which is studying Congress's use of the Internet.

Congressmen and their staff members are not adept at technology. Congress Online researchers found that almost half of the 535 House and Senate offices have software that can automate message sorting and addressing and even propose form letter responses, but fewer than 10 percent of the offices use it. Lobbyists and e-businesses are flooding congressional offices with mass e-mailings. Such interest group "spam" accounts for most of the e-mail members receive. Tight congressional office budgets do not permit buying equipment or hiring staffs capable of handling the volume of e-mail. "Most Capitol Hill offices mistakenly believe that they are helpless to efficiently manage the growing demands they face as a result of the e-mail explosion," the Congress Online Project said.

The organization offers some suggestions that may help:

Grassroots lobbyists should adopt a "code of conduct" that greatly reduces "spamming." The public should be given guidelines for communicating online with members of Congress. The House and Senate should provide members with the equipment and personnel to manage more sophisticated e-mail systems. Congressional staffs should learn to better use the hardware and software they already own. The Congress Online Project is a joint endeavor by the Congressional Management Foundation and George Washington University to examine how Congress uses technology to interact with the public. Its aim is to improve communication between Congress, the public, interest groups and lobbyists.

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