Congress has always been behind the curve technologically, and it continues to be. As a recent report from the Congressional Management Foundation demonstrates, the losers are both the public and politicians. But, with a little effort, they could both be winners.
In 1869, Thomas Edison urged the House to install an electronic voting system. It got one in the 1960s. Computers didn’t arrive on Capitol Hill until the 1980s. In 1993, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) established the first Congressional e-mail system, but he had to do it through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology because he couldn’t do so through the Senate.
Technology got a big boost when Republicans took over the House in 1995. E-mail became universal. The THOMAS system allowed citizens to access and track legislation. Every Member and every committee got a Web site.
Still, according to the report, while the growth in popularity of e-mail and the Internet has quadrupled the amount of communications Members receive from the public in the past decade, they have no more net staff to deal with the flow. And only 17 percent of House offices and 38 percent of Senate offices answer all incoming e-mail via e-mail. The rest rely on snail mail — and postage stamps, paid by the taxpayer — instead. And few Members have up-to-date, interactive Web sites that would encourage swift and meaningful exchanges with constituents.
“By not fully embracing the technology available to them, Members are missing both a political opportunity and what you might call a ‘good-government’ opportunity,” says CMF deputy director Brad Fitch, who directed the new study. On the political front, he cited research by George Washington University’s Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet that showed that citizens who communicate with Members are four times more likely than others to participate in politics. Getting good feedback from Members presumably encourages participation.
In the meantime, 55 percent of Congressional aides surveyed by CMF believe that the Internet has increased public understanding of what goes on in Washington, and 48 percent believe it has made Members more responsive to their constituents. The survey distinguished between lobby-generated mass “dumps” of e-mail, which have little sway, and individualized messages, which can have a lot — if they get through. Groups that seek to “shut down” a Member’s e-mail system with formulaic mail do themselves more harm than good.
An especially encouraging finding — assuming the respondents are being honest — is that 60 percent of staff reported that a constituent’s visit had a lot of influence on a Member, compared to 15 percent who felt a lobbyist’s visit had a lot of influence. (Fitch acknowledged that the survey did not ask about the influence of a lobbyist who raises money for a Member.)
The bottom line here is that politics is all about communication, and Congress can do far better than it’s doing. CMF is seeking foundation funding for a task force to help Members and citizens improve the two-way dialogue. We wish that effort well.