This story was written by Keith Dawson for the Industry Standard's Media Grok email newsletter. It is archived here for informational purposes only because The Standard's site is no more. This material is Copyright 1999-2001 by Standard Media.

Congress Flails in E-Mail Tidal Wave

Mar 20 2001 12:00 AM PST

The volume swells, and advocacy groups add to the rush, while congressional staffs dwindle.

The Congress Management Foundation and George Washington University released the results of a study of e-mail use by our elected representatives, and it's not a pretty picture. The AP and MSNBC summarized the study on Sunday, and the story spread yesterday and today.

The CMF's two-year study pictured a Congress struggling to cope with a tidal wave of constituent e-mail. The e-mail volume has grown from 20 million messages in 1998 to 48 million last year, and it is growing by a million messages a month. The study spotlighted the practice of some advocacy groups of encouraging the public to bombard Congress with e-mail on particular issues. (The report called such e-mail "spam," though it has little in common with the bane of unsolicited commercial e-mail.)

The e-mail wave is swelling while Congress' staff budgets remain flat and staffing levels are declining. Add in an ingrained congressional preference for snail mail, and the result is frustration for all concerned. The CMF report concluded by recommending attitude adjustments by citizens, activists and congressional staffs alike.

The AP coverage ran in CNN on Sunday and was picked up yesterday in the Los Angeles Times, Nando Times and elsewhere. Nando gave AP reporter D. Ian Hopper a byline. Hopper's piece had an overall upbeat slant that reflected the let's-all-work-to-make-this-better tone of the CMF study. Hopper quoted report co-author Rick Shapiro: "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."

MSNBC's Brock N. Meeks turned in a lengthier, more downbeat report whose sharp tone began at its headline: "Most e-mail to Congress is ignored." Of the trio of citizen, activist and Congress, Meeks made it clear that his sympathies lie with the citizen: "The study, too politely, suggests that congressional offices 'need to adjust their thinking about e-mail.'" He characterized the flood of congressional e-mail instigated by advocacy groups as "astroturf" - campaigns with false grass roots.

Meeks summarized the situation thus in his opening paragraph: "E-mail, rather than evolving into the workhorse of a wired citizen's democratic toolbox, is driving a wedge between Congress and constituent." This characterization was arguably harsher than the language of the study itself.

Slashdot took note of the press coverage of the congressional e-mail story. Surprisingly, some denizens of this tech-savvy community offered more sensible advice than the study's authors. An example: "It costs $1.40 to send a letter by certified mail and an additional $1.25 for the sender to get a receipt back confirming delivery. If you really care about a topic - show it by spending the $2.65."

Congressional Offices Flooded With E-Mail (AP)

Most E-Mail to Congress Is Ignored, Study Says

U.S. Congress and E-Mail

E-Mail Overload in Congress: Managing a Communications Crisis
Congress Online Project