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Email Blackout Exposes Tech Problems in House

Senate staffers couldn't get email through to their House colleagues Tuesday. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Countless emails to congressional staffers went unseen for hours Tuesday afternoon because of an unexplained internal server problem, raising questions about efficiency and security of the system that House members and their staffs rely on as a primary source of communication.  

House officials in charge of the email servers declined to provide basic information about the extent of the problem — including the answers to such questions as how many addresses were blocked, how long it lasted and what caused the delay — citing security concerns. But multiple staff members said they found out only hours after the problem started that they were not receiving important messages, including media inquiries and questions from Senate staffers whose emails were also blocked. Internal communication between House email addresses was not interrupted, they said.  

On a day that the federal budget was released, the blocked messages proved to be more of a headache to staffers juggling multiple threads of communication than an outright crisis. But the situation also served as a reminder of what some say is a recurring problem with outdated technology on both sides of Congress, where office budgets have been repeatedly slashed in recent years and Internet servers are annoyingly — and even dangerously — clunky.  

“This is one of countless symptoms of the larger issue,” said Seamus Kraft, executive director and co-founder of the The OpenGov Foundation, a nonprofit group dedicated to using technology to connect citizens and government. “The House and the Senate and Legislative branch support agencies — the Library of Congress, the GAO — simply cannot in many ways function because of the outdated, creaky and ... the broken infrastructure.”  

A spokeswoman from the Committee on House Administration confirmed only that there was a “delay in processing inbound emails.”  

“House Office system administrators were notified of this delay,” spokeswoman Erin McCracken said. “Our House IT professionals in the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer worked into the evening to resolve this issue.”  

McCracken and other House officials declined to say how many emails are routed through the server every day. One estimate, circulated by the Friends Committee on National Legislation in 2007, was that members of Congress collectively receive more than 200 million emails and letters every year. The House has 15,000 employees.  

The first emails were apparently blocked in the early afternoon, as staffers wound down from the morning release of President Barack Obama’s 2017 budget request and prepared for an evening of votes. Business on hand included measures to designate the former World Trade Center site as a national memorial, to require Department of Defense employees to report suspected child abuse and to remove 60 acres of privately held land from a protected Coastal Barrier region in Florida.  

One Democratic staff member who was juggling several bills, as well as the planning for Wednesday’s high-profile hearing on the water crisis in Flint, said he didn’t know there was a problem until a Senate staffer called to ask why he wasn’t responding to his emails. A batch of emails was delivered to his account around 11:30 pm but he was asleep, he said. The staff member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, read his messages Wednesday morning. Some staffers said it took 12 hours for e-mails to come through.  

“It’s one of those things when its working great no one says, ‘You’re doing a great job,’ but when it breaks down it seems like the end of the world,” the staff member said. He said it was the most extensive server problem he had experienced during his time working at the House.  

One staffer said that many colleagues said it was “beyond frustrating” when it became clear they’d been blocked from receiving outside email.  

People trying to send messages received automatically generated responses, in some cases several hours after the original messages were sent. One such message, delivered after four hours, said the server, "will keep trying to deliver this message for the next 1 days, 19 hours and 50 minutes. You'll be notified if the message can't be delivered by that time."  

Kraft said he could not speak specifically about Tuesday's problems, but that outdated technology and infrastructure plagues many areas of congressional business, including the way it calculates budgets, communicates with citizens and oversees its own administration.  

"The whole kit and kaboodle is broken, breaking or out of date," he said.  

His group released a report Tuesday that said congressional office budgets have been slashed by 21 percent since 2011, citing the House Administration Committee. The report concluded that it is impossible to say exactly how much Congress spends on technology because the records are inaccurate and incomplete. The available data showed that the House spent at least $182,000,000 and the Senate spent at least $106,356,000 on technology and tech-related staff in 2014, a total of at least $288,356,000.  

"Is $288,356,000 too much? Too little? We don’t know due to serious, perhaps fatal, data quality issues," the report read.  

Staff members have limits on how much email they can store in their inboxes and maintain private accounts to chat with each other, said Dan Schuman, policy director at Demand Progress and co-founder of the Congressional Data Coalition.  

"It's not a modern infrastructure," he said. "There's a deep discontent within the House and the Senate with the technology that's available to them."  

He pointed out, however, that the House has recently improved the way it provides information to the public.  

Brad Fitch, who has worked for and with Congress for about three decades, said Tuesday's breakdown was an anomaly.  

"Other than an natural disaster or a terrorist attack, I can't recall any time when House servers were down that long or emails were blocked that long except for the early days of email in 1995," said Fitch, who is president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation, which connects citizens and Congress. He said the House has been experimenting with digitizing its incoming mail, so a scanned copy is made of every letter sent to a House representative, just one example of measure the House has  taken that has earned commendations for innovation and transparency. But he added that Tuesday's problem should be thoroughly investigated.  

"Having email down 6-8 hours is unacceptable in any office environment," he said. "It interferes with the operations of the institution. What didn't get done? What casework didn’t get addressed? What negotiations could have been happening via email?"  

Another Democratic staffer said, however, that the downed servers exposed a completely different problem in the House: People don't talk to each other enough.  

"Everyone says, 'Oh the email is down,' " said the staffer, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Who the hell cares. Pick up the phone and talk to someone."  

Rema Rahman contributed to this story. Contact Akin at stephanieakin@rollcall.com and follow her on Twitter at @stephanieakin.

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