Anthrax anxiety escalates electronic correspondence, prompts change in lawmakers' attitude
The public's increasing use of e-mail plus anthrax anxiety pushed the volume of e-mail going to Congress up by 50 percent during 2001, according to the Congressional Management Foundation.
House and Senate offices received about 120 million e-mail messages this year, up from 80 million in 2000, according to a survey by the foundation and the Congress Online Project.
Perhaps more significant than the rising e-mail volume, many members of Congress have begun or say they soon will begin responding to e-mail correspondence with e-mail, according to Brad Fitch, deputy director of the foundation.
Early in the year, a survey showed that about 10 percent of House and Senate members responded to e-mail with e-mail. Many members shunned e-mail, fearing that such responses could be easily tampered with, that e-mail correspondence would prompt "the pen pal syndrome," or simply that e-mail messages would not be as highly regarded by recipients as paper mail, Fitch said.
In fact, the foundation found that tampering has been rare, the ease of e-mail has not tended to generate frivolous correspondence from "pen pals," and correspondents who send e-mail usually expect to receive e-mail responses, he said.
But it was anthrax contamination of the paper mail in October that really changed members' attitudes about e-mail. "Now members are encouraging their constituents to communicate with them through e-mail. That never happened before," Fitch said.
When anthrax-contaminated letters arrived, several congressional office buildings were closed, paper mail was impounded, and e-mail suddenly became an indispensable means of communication.
There was "a bit of a spike" in e-mail traffic during that period, Fitch said, but throughout the year there was "a steady march of constituents going online and using e-mail to communicate with members of Congress."
"We really like e-mail," said Lani Czarniecki, who heads the Anderson, Ind., office of freshman Republican Rep. Mike Pence. "It's a very fast and effective way of providing information to constituents."
During the anthrax scare, when Pence's Washington, D.C., office was closed, his staff not only encouraged the public to use e-mail instead of paper mail, but also turned paper documents into electronic files and e-mailed them among staffers.
Growth in the use of e-mail is expected to continue simply because more people are going online, Fitch said. If highly emotional issues come before Congress in 2002, e-mail volume could reach 200 million messages -- "way beyond postal mail," he said.
During 2001, most Senate offices installed automated e-mail management systems to sort, filter and in some cases respond to e-mail messages. Now a growing number of House offices are inquiring about similar systems, Fitch said.
"Previously, they were asking, 'Should we do it?' Now they're asking 'How can we do it?' " he said.
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