E-mail keeps lawmakers in touch

With their congressional office closed due to the anthrax scare, aides to Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) decamped to a townhouse a few blocks from the Capitol. There, with laptops in the living room, an Internet connection in the basement and multiple wireless phones, they continued with the business of government.

Although not as efficient as operations in Lofgren's Capitol Hill office suite, where T1 lines, telephones and fax machines make communication easy and instant, the patchwork of portable technology was enough to stay in touch with Lofgren's Silicon Valley constituents.

A few blocks away, other House staf.fers set up temporary offices in the General Accounting Office headquarters. GAO supplied laptops, printers and access to the Internet, CNN, C-SPAN and e-mail accounts, said David Marin, spokesman for Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.). "The tech support is incredible," Marin said, but "there is some frustration that the snail mail is not getting through."

Most congressional staffers are just as happy not to see paper mail since anthrax arrived in an envelope addressed to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle Oct. 15. E-mail has become indispensable.

As his office was being locked Oct. 17, Rep. John Linder (R-Ga.) issued an Internet plea to constituents to "contact me by e-mail rather than postal mail." He directed correspondents to his Web site, which includes an e-mail form that sends messages to an automated system that sorts them by subject and delivers them to the appropriate staffer.

Aides to Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) said e-mail also proved to be an efficient way to share documents among staffers working at various locations in Washington, D.C., and in Indiana. Paper documents that would ordinarily be passed around the office were scanned and e-mailed to whoever needed them.

"Actually, it saves time, and when you receive documents electronically, you don't have any concern" about anthrax, said Lani Czarniecki, Pence's district director. Staffers who work for e-government advocate Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) squeezed into borrowed office space or worked from home, but said e-mail, wireless phones and laptops made their office shutdown "merely an inconvenience."

Some temporary operations have encountered glitches, however. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), a former high-tech executive, advised constituents to contact her via e-mail, but when her office in the contaminated Hart Office Building was closed, access to her Senate e-mail accounts and office phones was cut off.

"We're making alternate arrangements," including routing e-mail messages through state offices, said Cantwell spokeswoman Jennifer Creider.

Disruptive as it has been, the anthrax crisis may prove beneficial to e-government, said Pam Fielding, who operates e-advocates, an electronic lobbying firm. "This may create the paperless democracy some of us have been anticipating."

One important change is already evident: Lawmakers have long accepted e-mail from constituents, but most have not used e-mail to respond, preferring to reply with paper mail.

Amid the alarm concerning anthrax, "I'm not sure citizens want to receive [paper] letters from their elected officials any more than elected officials want to get them," Fielding said. More House and Senate officials now answer e-mail with e-mail, she said.

The anthrax attack prompted the Democratic Leadership Council to consider options beyond e-mail.

Worried that future biological or chemical attacks could "make regular congressional deliberations impractical or unsafe," DLC proposed "an electronic Congress" in which members could hold hearings, debate and vote online from safe locations across the country.

"A Web site could easily be built that would facilitate virtually all of the business normally conducted on the floors of the House and Senate, or in committees," according to the DLC proposal. And read-only access for the public would ensure open government.

From a technology standpoint, creating an electronic Congress is relatively easy, said James Snider, a government and technology specialist at the New America Foundation. But convincing members of Congress to change more than 200 years of tradition could be a real challenge. Snider said lawmakers reacted "with a sense of horror" when he suggested they make better use of technology, such as electronic voting, which would enable them to vote from their Capitol Hill offices or their home districts. They fear that electronic voting "would harm collegiality," Snider said. "Going to the floor to vote is one of the few times left when members talk to one another."

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