Impeachment e-mail clogs Congress

A surge in e-mail to US Congress last week brought about by the impeachment debate forced some mail servers to be taken offline as lawmakers' systems struggled to handle the load.

"There have been some severe problems around here," said Matt Raymond, press secretary for Senator Conrad Burns (Republican-Montana). "Using anything involving a shared server [on December 15] and the day before was like trying to wade through molasses."

Many e-mails sent the previous weekend were bounced back while servers were down. "I think it shows the limitation of the system," Raymond said.

Jon Brandt, press secretary for Representative Peter Hoekstra (Republican-Michigan), said some of the 14 servers that handle e-mail to House members were down for short periods for maintenance.

At the technical root of the problem were two of the 14 House e-mail servers running Microsoft's Exchange 4.4. The servers reached a message storage limit of 16G and sent e-mails into a continuous loop without delivering them, a Microsoft official said. The problem was fixed within a day, and the House plans to upgrade to Exchange 5.5.

"There is no [storage] limitation in Exchange 5.5," said Stan Sorensen, product manager for Exchange at Microsoft. "In addition, we increased the performance dramatically, so 5.5 should be much faster. The House should not receive any performance lags in day-to-day usage as it gets more e-mail." Also, support for Internet protocols in Exchange 5.5 will allow the House to create online discussion groups for internal use or to communicate with constituents, he said.

Liz McAlhany, director of customer relations for the Senate sergeant-at-arms, said the Senate, which uses Lotus Development's cc:Mail, received more than 200,000 e-mails on Wednesday, or about three times the normal number. Four computers handle senators' e-mail, including two Compaq Computer servers added within the past several months. "We started working on infrastructure in the summer in anticipation of the next Congress and the ever-increasing volume of Internet mail," McAlhany said.

Trey Hardin, the spokesman for Representative Tom Davis (Republican-Virginia), said the e-mail flood has not caused technical havoc on the congressman's computers. Davis has been an "undecided" on the impeachment vote and, therefore, a target for electronic pleas from constituents and people outside his district. "[The flood of e-mail] has not crashed our system," said Hardin, who added that Davis' staffers are trying to respond to many of the e-mail messages.

Brandt said part of the e-mail problem is that there is no way to filter out messages from people who are not constituents, and Hoekstra's policy is to reply only to e-mails from constituents. Hoekstra received 1,800 e-mails -- more than six times the usual number -- over the weekend of December 12-13, but only 200 were from constituents. The only way to describe the rest of the correspondence is "junk e-mail," Brandt said.

The organisation Censure and Move On, which supports censuring rather than impeaching President Clinton, operates a World Wide Web site that enables people to send e-mails to representatives, but writers have to submit their ZIP code to ensure they are sending a message only to their own representative. Brandt said this model is much more reasonable than the one used by some Web sites that let people send messages to all members of Congress.

Joan Blades, one of the founders of Censure and Move On, said her organisation also eliminates duplicate petitioners. She said the group last week delivered 300,000 names to members of Congress in paper and e-mail form.

Meanwhile, techies on Capitol Hill seem to be fielding such updates - and other Congress-bound e-mail as best as they can.

"Maybe someday someone will develop some software that will be able to filter out non-constituent mail, but obviously this is a problem that goes on throughout the Web whether it's to Congress or my e-mail account at home," Brandt said.

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