Does Congress Read Its E-Mail?
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- What's that long message in your e-mail in-box? Is it another digital petition? It lists strings of names following a pitch for (or against) a public policy, cabinet confirmation, or other cause. Sign and resend, it urges.
Does it matter if you type in your name and pass it to like-minded e-mail-equipped friends? It might, but not necessarily to the intended targets. It seems the grassroots groups that launch such electronic efforts often gain by growing their mailing list and public awareness of their cause. But many of the intended recipients say such mass petitions fall to the bottom of the priority scale.
More than 70 million e-mail petitions and other high volume electronic messages poured into Congress last year. Lawmakers say they treat e-mail the same as postal mail. Everything gets read and, if the content warrants it, gets a reply, they say.
But much of this e-mail is written and produced with no more than a touch of a button. And with so much flooding into the capital, many officials confess that such digital form letters carry less weight than other modes of correspondence, such as personal visits or postal letters.
According to a 1998 study by the oversight group
"Staffers can only pay so much attention and so much time to the messages they get," says Ryan Turner, an analyst for OMB Watch, which monitors government policy and practices. "A mass-produced e-mail message is not going to mean as much as a letter from someone that contains a heartfelt, impassioned appeal."
Turner adds that constituents do best to use a combination of methods to correspond with lawmakers. For example, follow up a letter with a phone call or vice versa.
Grassroots groups, however, say e-mail petition campaigns are an emerging and effective tool for people to convey their views to public officials. Any official who dismisses these petitions as mere "astroturf" campaigns akin to those of lobbying agencies runs a political risk, says Mary Jean Collins of
"Sometimes you'll hear that [e-mail petitions] are too easy," Collins says. "I don't agree with that. That's part of what we're trying to do--to make it easier for people to contact their congressional official. Most people don't even write to their own mother. So the idea that they'll write to their senator [on their own] is pretty farfetched."
E-mail petitions, rather, enable people who lack the deep pockets of some interest groups to still weigh in on the political process, Collins says. For example, her organization recently sent more than 500,000 petitions plus individual letters to members of Congress, asking them to oppose the confirmation of John Ashcroft as attorney general. The bill for the petition blitz was $15,000. A similar campaign conducted through postal mail would have cost triple that figure, Collins says.
"These petitions are just the beginning of a process for engagement of the citizens, and they're very effective," says Wes Boyd, of
But more importantly, the petition process enabled him to establish connections with a large platoon of like-minded people who could later be called upon to mobilize support on an issue.
Boyd founded a political action committee and raised more than $2.25 million in campaign contributions using the names from the petition. The money went to candidates challenging incumbents who had favored impeachment.
"Politicians will respond and move in our direction because we have what they need: popular and financial support," Boyd says.
The study, commissioned by the Congress Online Project, attributes the problem to Congress's antiquated computer systems and the grassroots groups that sponsor freewheeling lobbying blitzes.
Those "indiscriminate" lobbying practices, in which letters are sent to members of Congress regardless of whether the correspondents are constituents, are a major contributing factor to the "e-mail crisis" on Capitol Hill, according to the report.
These companies and organizations are "spamming congressional offices with millions of e-mails that they cannot possibly respond to," the report says. Lawmakers must budget their own computer systems, which many cannot afford to update, says Kathy Goldschmidt, who performed the study.
Only 10 percent of congressional offices answer constituent e-mail messages with e-mail. Most still use postal mail, which can take up to three weeks to find its destination, aides say.
Even in the most technologically savvy offices, mass e-mail petitions often fail to prompt replies.
"We look at them and tally them to see what a trend is on an issue, but we don't generally respond to mass e-mails," says a spokesperson for Senator Conrad Burns (R-Montana), who has received high marks for using technology. "But if somebody takes the time to write us a letter, we really want to respond to them."