Congress Needs to Get With the Times on Communication

Posted June 20, 2007 at 2:38pm

As a former chief of staff on Capitol Hill, I sympathize with the plight of Congressional offices overwhelmed by correspondence from constituents. Our office, like most, spent more time responding to queries and solicitations from constituents than on any single legislative issue. On occasion, I would find myself threatened by mutinous carpal-tunneled staff demanding relief from the seemingly never-ending flow of constituent mail.

After removing the letter opener from their grips, though, I would remind them: Taking care of constituents was the reason we had our jobs. More than drafting legislation, more than sitting in committee hearings, more than meeting with lobbyists, constituent work is the most important function of any Congressional office.

Answering mail is not sexy. Helping a senior locate her lost Social Security check isn’t as exhilarating as drafting an opening statement for a hearing. And reading another diatribe about immigration — whether you’re for it or against it — gets a little monotonous after the 839th letter.

But that letter wasn’t monotonous to the constituent who wrote it. He didn’t write it 839 times. (Well, most constituents don’t write that often.) And these days, with e-mail, the barrage of demands, requests, suggestions and complaints is even more overwhelming.

A recent Congressional Management Foundation study reports that correspondence to Congress has quadrupled with the onset of e-mail. The same report notes that, in theory, Congressional staff love how the Internet has increased participation in our democracy. They just hate it in practice.

Turns out that a thriving democracy involves a lot of interaction with the public — driving Outlook-addled staff to the edge of insanity.

The solution on Capitol Hill? Instead of adapting methods and technologies to deal with the changing communications landscape, Members of Congress are trying to block out the changing world from its hallowed halls. Even when I was on the Hill years ago, Congressional offices were woefully behind the times with regard to technology. Instead of responding to e-mail with e-mail, offices would (and still do) go through the laborious process of printing out e-mail letters, putting them in a pile and then drafting a traditional letter in response that would be sent through the postal system.

It makes you wonder: When telephones first became available, did Members of Congress have their staffs translate incoming calls into telegrams?

That approach proved to be even more labor-intensive, so the Hill looked for ways to prevent constituents from sending e-mail through the normal process — you know, writing a note and hitting send. Offices set up electronic forms on their Web sites, forcing constituents to take extra steps to first seek out a particular Congressman’s Web site, then fill out a bureaucratic form and then hit send.

It didn’t work. Constituent mail continued to flood the Hill. Office printers stayed humming, and Congressional staffers continued to lick stamps until their tongues dried out.

Which brings us to the latest bizarre and ineffective step by Members of Congress to discourage constituents from writing. They’re called logic puzzles. Some Congressional offices require their more public-minded constituents to solve math puzzles on their Web sites before they can submit an e-mail online. Call it the SAT Method of Warding Off Pesky Constituents.

The CMF study on e-mail reports claims by some Congressional staff that this digital Rubik’s Cube was devised as a way to block machine-generated e-mails that aren’t really coming from constituents at all, but from advocacy groups who use their membership lists to hound Congress with “form e-mails.”

Putting the paranoia aside for a moment, since when was it undemocratic for advocacy groups to … well, advocate? It’s hardly a new phenomenon of the digital age. Anybody who has ever worked in a Congressional office is more than familiar with those little orange “form” postcards from the National Rifle Association. Anytime there is a vote on gun rights, Capitol Hill is flooded with more orange than Arkansas in deer season.

Do you think Members of Congress ignore them? Not on your life. The fact that the postcard is mass produced by the NRA doesn’t detract from the reality that every one of those postcards was sent by a constituent — and likely voter!

I urge Members of Congress to change their thinking and catch up with the rest of the world spinning by them. Congress can’t bend technology to its will, but it can adapt to emerging technologies. Voters and constituents are not going to quit making their voices heard. And they’re not going to quit forming coalitions of like-minded citizens as a way to make their voices heard even louder.

Elected officials won’t change the basic urges of democracy by building digital walls around their offices. New technologies will continue to scale them. And voters will break right through them.

Christopher Battle is vice president and senior strategist for Adfero Group, a Washington-based public affairs firm, and a one-time staff member to former GOP Reps. Asa Hutchinson (Ark.) and Katherine Harris (Fla.).