Thursday, June 30, 2005

Congress (is learning to) Heart E-mail

While the Congress Online reports online are a bit out of date (they want you to buy the new ones), I want to applaud TNHegemon for his post, allowing those among us who'd rather read something online than in their hands.

Having just finished a 5-month internship on the Hill, I understand the authors' frustration with both members' offices and constituents themselves. The unsubstantiated fear of manipulation of e-mail correspondence sent by a congressional office seems not just silly, but inefficient. To respond to e-mail with regular mail a) looks strange, b) takes a long time, and c) requires the use of more intern/LC time. Since 9/11 and the anthrax scare, however, congressional offices are learning to appreciate the hassle avoided by e-mail.

The authors stumble upon an important distinction between effective and ineffective e-mail. They write:

"The seemingly easy electronic access to Members of Congress has also fostered a public misperception that individual Members should be accountable to all citizens who write, regardless of where they are from. Advocacy groups and grassroots lobbyists have played a key role in creating these unreasonable public expectations. They have taken the lead in encouraging high-volume, mass communication because they assume that offices will tally incoming e-mail, even if it is not from constituents, and be influenced by high volumes of e-mail that reflect a particular viewpoint...Indeed, fueled by these "astroturf" lobbying practices, the majority of e-mail messages that congressional offices receive come from outside their districts or states. Offices have responded to these non-constituent e-mail messages as they do with non-constituent postal mail - by ignoring them."

It's likely that most of us have sent these messages through our favored advocacy groups on many occasions. If Congress mostly ignores them, why do organizations continue to hammer away at this tactic? I have an inkling that flooding congressional inboxes might not be as ignorable as Congress would like it. Chances are, you will get the attention of the office. Whether this attention -- stemming from annoyance -- is good or bad is another issue altogether.

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