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They've Got Mail but Can't Answer It

Congress: As amount of e-mail becomes flood, most offices take three weeks to respond, report says.

March 19, 2001|From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Few congressional offices are coping with a flood of e-mail from Americans, a problem that threatens to worsen as the total climbs beyond the 80 million messages sent last year, a study released Sunday says.

House offices get as many as 8,000 e-mails per month, compared with 55,000 monthly in some Senate offices. The overall number is rising by 1 million per month on average, thanks in part to ease of use and the efforts of grass-roots Web sites, reports a nonprofit organization seeking to improve the effectiveness of Congress.

"Two years ago, the House chiefs of staff didn't think e-mail was a problem," said Rick Shapiro, executive director of the Congressional Management Foundation. "A year later, it's the biggest problem [they are] facing."

"I don't think congressional officials were prepared for how rapidly this would grow," he said, adding that most offices don't have the staff or technical workers to handle all the e-mail.

Before 1995, few House offices had e-mail accounts. But that has quickly changed. House members received 48 million e-mails in 2000, more than double the number received in 1998.

While offering tips for legislators--newer e-mail systems can automatically toss out unwanted e-mail and organize the rest--the report also tells citizens how to make their opinions heard.

Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) gives priority to e-mailers from her state. She said writers get more attention when they are quick to the point and "tell me their story and why this matters to them."

"We have lists of folks who are interested in particular issues," said Wilson, "and we'll fire out an e-mail saying so-and-so is testifying, and if they have any questions they'd like me to ask."

Shapiro said it usually takes about three weeks for most offices to respond to e-mails and the report chides many of them for responding with paper mail. The best offices, he said, can send an e-mail back in fewer than four days.

David Carle, spokesman for Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), said his office responded to about 50,000 people who e-mailed during the week of hearings on Napster's free Internet song-swapping service. Napster and other groups have started encouraging people to barrage legislators with e-mail.

"From virtually every office we talked to, they kind of rolled their eyes and said that it's all that damn spam that comes in that causes us so much headache," Shapiro said. "What it's doing is generating a lot of noise that's just clogging up the whole system."

The report was underwritten by the Pew Charitable Trust, a philanthropic fund started by the family owners of the Sun Oil Co.

The Congressional Management Foundation receives money from corporations and foundations, sales of its management publications, and fees for management services provided to individual House and Senate offices.

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