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Why Congress Prefers E-mail

As Capitol Hill moves further online, constituents may be wondering if anyone still reads handwritten letters.

The answer? Yes, but they don’t like to.

Each congressional office hires at least one legislative correspondent, or “L.C.” in Hill lingo, to sort and answer all kinds of mail.

Though routines differ depending on how much mail a Member of Congress receives, almost all offices prefer e-mail, according to John Clocker, a Congressional staffer who developed the software most use for electronic correspondence.

His program, called Write Your Representative, creates a form on Congressional Web sites where constituents can send e-mail. Outside Web sites such as Congress.org use their own software to connect directly to the program as well and ensure mail sent through them gets through.

Members like the program because it makes it easier for constituents to contact them and gives them an easy way to sort that mail.

“Probably more than 80 percent (of Hill offices) really prefer electronic communication to come in via Web,” said Clocker, the Web branch manager in the Office of the Chief Administrator.

That office is in charge of helping congressional offices develop their electronic communications, but it also manages employee benefits and payroll, child care and even parking.

Write Your Representative was first created in 1996, though it’s become very popular in recent months as Congress has debated bailing out financial institutions, stimulating the economy and overhauling health care.

Jeff Ventura, a spokesman for the Chief Administrator, said that the rise in electronic submissions is logical given that the Internet is becoming increasingly more accessible people of all ages and economic backgrounds.

“It used to be a computer was a big appliance for the home,” he said.

One question that constituents often have is why Members of Congress don’t make their e-mail addresses public.

“Really that’s just not realistic,” Ventura said. “When e-mail comes into a member office…those emails are distributed into sort of a constituent relations team to figure out. Sort of like sorting out the apples.”

In the early 1990s, when Congressional offices were still learning how to use the Internet as a form of communication with their constituents, Ventura said several members did make their e-mail addresses public.

Their inboxes were soon flooded with more mail than they could handle, and it was impossible to undo.

Congressional e-mail really took off after the 2001 anthrax attacks, when letters containing spores of the deadly bacteria were sent to two senators. As a result of that scare, all constituent mail now has to go through a rigorous process that delays its receipt significantly.

“That’s when we really made the push to go electronic,” Clark said. Since then, Write Your Representative has become increasingly popular.

Clark plans to improve the interface of Write Your Representative to make it more user-friendly. He’s also looked into letting constituents send text messages to their Members, but most cell-phone plans charge a fee and he hopes to find a way to make the service free.

“We’re looking at a lot of things,” he said.

Leah Carliner writes for Congressional Quarterly.