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Problem That's Really in the Mail : No Simple Solution to Address the Deluge to Congress

June 04, 1989|DANA PRIEST | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Go ahead, fire off that vituperative letter to your U.S. representative, but don't expect a reply any time soon. All incoming missives are going nowhere fast.

The Office of the Postmaster for the House has been so inundated with constituent mail in the past month that letters, mailgrams and packages sit in a basement sorting room for about a week before workers can deliver them to members' offices.

Packed to Overflowing

The mail sorting room, in the Longworth House Office Building, is so packed that the overflow is often stacked in the hallway.

Employees hired recently to move the backlog have no room to work, said House Administration Committee aides and various subcommittee staff members who are working on the problem. And mail handlers complain of 60-hour work weeks.

Some representatives have sought public service announcements to explain the delay back home and to reassure constituents who are feeling ignored.

Rep. Frank Horton (R-N.Y.) issued a press release in mid-May suggesting that constituents call rather than write.

"Everybody's saying, 'Write to your congressman,' and they do," said House Postmaster Robert V. Rota, as he frantically picked his way through a desk piled high with envelopes and statistical charts outlining the problem.

'Got Out of Hand'

Three weeks into the Bush Administration, starting with the savings and loan debate, the mail "came in in volumes that were unheard of," Rota said. "It continued to grow until it just got out of hand. These volumes just bring everything to a halt. . . . You have it stored everywhere."

Incoming mail volume has increased from 14.5-million pieces a year in 1972, when House members first elected Rota as postmaster, to 156.6-million pieces last year, he said.

If Rota's projections hold, House members will receive 391.5-million pieces in 1989, more than twice as much as the year before.

The Senate mail office is not experiencing similar increases. Senate constituent mail is being delivered the same day it is received, as is the normal practice.

House staff members and Rota said the increase is due to mailing binges by special-interest groups, among them constituents sending in thousands of postcards and letters at a time about the ethics probe of just-resigned Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.), Medicare, gun control, taxes, abortion and animal rights.

The delay has created awkward scheduling problems for House members. "The biggest problem is definitely the invitation situation," said Karin E. Johanson, spokeswoman for Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, (D-Md.), citing a number of invitations that have arrived after scheduled events. "You'd think two weeks from Bowie (Md.) to Washington would be enough, but it's not."

No Sorting Machines

Committee staff members said the most likely solution for now is to expand the mail room operations into a parking lot downstairs.

Rota has ruled out mechanized sorting machines used by the U.S. Postal Service to electronically read and sort mail. The machines would not work given the unusual character of Capitol Hill mail, he said.

Typical examples were the letter addressed simply "MO" and destined for Rep. Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.) and the paper plates a group of children wrote in on concerning subsidized free lunches.

"Those are the bonds between the constituents and their congressmen," Rota said. "We would never want to dictate to people how to address their letters."

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