Congress views e-mail

House members worry about viruses corrupting their e-mail, but following the anthrax- and ricin-laced letters sent recently to members of Congress, electronic viruses seem more manageable.

With this in mind, the House Administration Committee is moving forward with a pilot test of a digital mail program that would scan letters sent via regular mail into computers and then send the images electronically to members of Congress.

The pilot test began after the anthrax scare shut down two Senate office buildings in 2001, crippling the process of handling constituent mail for months and creating a colossal backlog. After ricin, a deadly poison, was sent to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's office in February, lawmakers' interest in the digital mail program surged.

The number of House offices participating in the test is expanding by 56, bringing the total number of participants to 75, according to Beth Bellizzi, the Democratic communications director. So far, the program has operated with 99.87 percent accuracy. Out of 47,000 images processed, only 59 had to be rescanned.

The test requires shipping mail from constituents to a facility in Leesburg, Va., where it is scanned and sent electronically to members of the House.

"It's a cultural change for some offices," said Brian Walsh, a spokesman for the panel's chairman, Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio). "A lot of people are used to having [mail] physically in front of them. There are a few offices who participated in Phase One, and ultimately it wasn't for them."

"I certainly wouldn't say at this point that the chairman would make it involuntary," Walsh said. "Our chief administrative officer is still studying the costs and logistics of increasing it to the next phase."

According to Bellizzi, committee staff estimate that it would take six to eight months to make the system permanent.

Walsh said adding a metadata system has shortened the time it takes for an office to receive mail by two days. It takes about five business days from the time a letter is mailed until staffers can access it digitally.

Letters can be sorted electronically by keyword using the metadata feature. For example, a staffer might enter "Social Security" into the search field and route all letters that appear in the mailbox of a member's Social Security expert.

Initially, lawmakers received discs containing constituent mail twice a day. But if a piece of mail was not on the first disc, it would not arrive until late in the day, when the second disc was delivered. The system did not interface with the constituent mail system from various vendors early in the test.

Rep. John Larson (Conn.), the committee's ranking Democrat, "believes this program will substantially increase the efficiency of member offices' constituent mail systems," Bellizzi said. "Certainly, any tool that helps reduce the time it takes to respond to constituents, while preventing staff from having to handle irradiated paper, is a tremendous asset."

The private company doing the scanning work is Pitney Bowes Inc., experts in mail management. Company spokesman Chris Tessier declined to comment on the specifics of the work. But he said there are three vital elements to securing mail — people, process and technology.

"If you're missing one of those components, then you're going to be in trouble," Tessier said. "There is no silver bullet technology that helps companies protect themselves against every type of scenario, but using the proper process and having people on the ground who know what to look for goes a long way."

The Senate has not announced a comparable digitization project.


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