Bailout Creates Web Surge That Could Last

Posted September 30, 2008 at 6:45pm

The financial bailout bill — and the public’s overwhelming interest in it — may have lasting effects on the number of people who visit House Web sites and how the chamber handles that Web traffic.

As the House considered the bailout bill on Monday, constituents rushed to Member Web sites, overloading servers and slowing down access. Most affected was House.gov, which was almost impossible to load during the House’s vote.

That phenomenon, experts say, could herald a new era of increased Web traffic.

“What we’ve kind of seen historically is that when communications increase for some specific reason, they never really go back down to the level prior to that big event,” said Tim Hysom, spokesman for the Congressional Management Foundation.

One government information technology expert, who could not be quoted by name, compared the situation to when constituents overloaded the Senate’s e-mail system in 2001 during John Ashcroft’s confirmation hearings for attorney general. E-mail levels never dropped back to their previous levels, he said, and the event ushered in an increasingly popular way to contact Members.

The recent server overload may hint that the public has “a real-time need in sending and receiving information,” he said. “It could be a predictor on what they are going to do in the future.”

The increased traffic, and the threat of a future surge of interest, means the House may have to add another server or get the help of an outside company during times of such high demand, according to computer experts.

Indeed, House officials said the servers are being used at 100 percent capacity. Much of that is due to constituents e-mailing their Member through a form on that Member’s Web site.

For this week, they will just “ride it out,” said Jeff Ventura, spokesman for Chief Administrative Officer Dan Beard, whose office handles the House computers.

Beard’s office has devised a stopgap measure to help: During peak demand, the House servers will turn some visitors away from the “Write Your Representative” function on Member Web sites, directing them to a message asking them to try back at a later time.

Ventura likened this to a “traffic cop” on a crowded highway.

“Imagine a tunnel entrance,” he said. “Although you may have several lanes of traffic available inside, the problem we’re having now is the entrance to the tunnel can’t have 10 lanes rushing all at once.”

The tactic was first used Tuesday morning, and computer technicians are working long hours to come up with a long-term solution, Ventura said.

“Obviously, this is a sort of a Band-Aid on the problem, and we understand that,” Ventura said, adding that only hardware or software changes would enable the servers to handle the increased Web traffic.

“What you don’t want to do is make sweeping changes to the computer architecture during this time. It’s not the right time to be fiddling with fundamentals of the system,” Ventura said.

Hysom called this a “common-sense approach.”

“I think the House is dealing with it in the best way that they can,” he said. “There’s never a way to anticipate that this would happen.”

But not all House.gov sites are having this problem. Dozens of Member sites are hosted by outside companies, which keeps their servers inside the House firewall.

Adfero, a public relations company that provides targeted e-mail services, hosts about 75 Member sites, including the site of Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio).

Boehner’s Web site has seen a four-fold increase in traffic “without any noticeable effect,” Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith said. In fact, phone calls almost seem more cumbersome: The office estimates it has a call on the bailout every 15 seconds.

None of Adfero’s other sites crashed, either, despite a three-fold increase in traffic, Vice President Ken Ward said. New servers contributed to the ability to keep things running, he said, but those servers also didn’t have the same load as the House ones.

“To be fair, we host a lot of sites, but usually a constituent goes to House.gov before they go to a Member’s site,” he said, adding that House.gov and other main sites are on House servers. “In some ways, it’s comparing apples to oranges.”

Whatever the reason, some constituents will be turned away from those House sites on the chamber’s servers. The possibility worries some staffers, especially since most of the e-mail seems to be individuals writing on their own, rather than interest groups organizing mass mailings.

“It puts the Member into an uncomfortable position because our constituents are going to blame us. They don’t know what the CAO is nor should they,” said Brian Robinson, spokesman for Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.), whose office has gotten about 1,200 e-mails in the past week.

“I think people already feel faceless and nameless, and when they get a message saying they can’t even e-mail a Member, that makes it worse,” Robinson said.