Despite a few stragglers, members of the U.S. Congress have a respectable record of embracing the Internet, using it in their campaigns and to communicate with constituents, but like some successful online retailers, many members are worried about too much of a good thing.
It's been nearly 10 years since seven members of Congress agreed to participate in a pilot e-mail project and about eight years since the first congressional Web site -- located at www.ai.mit.edu/iiit/project/kennedy.homepage/html -- went online. But today there is no U.S. senator who can't be reached by email -- either via a public email address or a form on a Web site -- and all but 28 of the 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives also have e-mail, according to Pam Fielding, principal at E-advocates, a Washington-based cyber-advocacy organization. All 100 senators have Web sites and only four on the House side do not.
But as Congress cautiously makes the use of e-mail and Web sites part of its day-to-day routine, there are worries about the volume of e-mail sent to Congress, how to process it and how to recruit people with the skills needed to manage the new method of communication. At the same time, elected representatives sent to Washington know they can't ignore the medium.
"Congress as we know it and the Internet is a marriage made in hell," said Stephen Frantzich, a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy. "Divorce is probably not possible."
Fielding and Frantzich spoke Friday in a panel discussion on the impact of the Internet on Congress sponsored by American University's Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies. Panel participants said citizens who want to use the Internet to communicate with Congress are becoming frustrated because of a perceived lack of responsiveness, while the members are frustrated over people who insist on sending their message to every member of Congress and don't understand how Congress works.
Either way, the ease and relative low cost of e-mail have made it a very popular way to write to Congress. About 1 million e-mails are received monthly by the House of Representatives, and the Web sites of the House members receive about 1.5 million hits per month, according to the manager of the House's e-mail servers.
A report by the Congressional Management Foundation found the volume to be even higher. For example, in December during the presidential election ballot recount, members of the House received 7 million e-mail messages, according to the report.
Some members of Congress have started to shut down their public e-mail accounts because of this onslaught, leaving e-mail forms accessible at congressional Web sites as the only electronic option for sending an e-mail to a representative, Fielding said. Because this usually requires the sender to enter a zip code, it acts as a screen that can prevent e-mail from nonconstituents, and is not an ideal situation for organizations such as Fielding's.
Screening email in this way is an unfortunate trend because in many cases the people who write to their representative don't always expect a response, they just want their opinion to be heard, Fielding said. And they shouldn't have to go to a Web site and fill out a form to do it, especially if the member of Congress they wish to write to is as member of the leadership, meaning he or she plays a large role in passing legislation.
But the effectiveness of e-mail sent to members of Congress is another question, and Web sites also aren't used to their full potential. Frantzich noted that in floor speeches only rarely do members of Congress mention reading their e-mail, and Donald Wolfensberger, of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said only about 12 House members offer people who visit their Web sites the option to sign up for electronic newsletters. In addition, few members maintain timely information on their Web sites such as how they voted on important legislation, Wolfensberger said.
Frantzich said there were a number of reasons representatives remain somewhat skeptical about using e-mail. Many still take a "cold sweat letter" more seriously because they take more effort to compose and send than an e-mail. Representatives also clash with constituents over the timing of their response. While Internet activists tend to want immediate reactions, members can't always respond rapidly, Frantzich said.
Congress also has made a mistake in looking at the Internet as a broadcast medium, which is not the way people use it, he said.
Internet users are "nomadic information gatherers," Frantzich said. "If Congress thinks that the Internet is a big bulletin board that they are going to use to get their message through to people directly, they missed it."
He also described it as a "mixed media" means of communication encompassing interaction and immediate and easy access to archives. he added that he believes Congress currently is "woefully prepared" to make use of mixed-media.