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Congress Talks Back Through E-Mail

August 20, 1999

WASHINGTON (AP) _ When Erin Latta heard a rumor there might be new charges tied to people’s use of e-mails, she whipped off an e-mail to her congressman and said she was dead set against it.

Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., e-mailed her back within a day, saying there was nothing to the rumor, and he would oppose such fees.

``I was very impressed,″ said Latta, 32, a homemaker in Redmond, Wash. ``I thought I probably would get (an e-mail response). I didn’t think it would be so fast.″

House and Senate members who used to rely on the postal service and news media to reach constituents are increasingly using e-mail to take their message directly to voters, although no one seems inclined to ditch the taxpayer financed system of mail for lawmakers known as the congressional frank.

Nevertheless, some offices now are sending bulk e-mails _ hundreds of messages at a time _ with a single push of a button.

Rep. Asa Hutchinson, R-Ark., e-mails his legislative schedule and an update on issues each Monday to about 5,000 constituents. Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Wash., sends a cybernewsletter to between 600 and 700 each Friday, and House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, has 10,000 names on his bulk e-mail list.

About 35 people signed up for bulk e-mails by Rep. Dennis Moore, D-Kan., less than a week after he started offering them this month. ``So many people are on the Internet now, it would be foolish to ignore that pool,″ said Jack Martin, Moore’s spokesman.

E-mail can be dispatched more quickly than mailed newsletters and don’t strain members’ postal budgets.

``A lot of people feel disenfranchised that they don’t have access to the (political) system,″ said Inslee, whose most extensively distributed e-mail so far reached 1,200 people. ``This is the best cure for that malaise _ being able to have instant communication.″

Inslee and other mass e-mailers point out they are not ``spamming″ _ sending unwanted e-mails. People on congressional e-mail lists sign up at members’ World Wide Web sites or by e-mail, they say.

As long those guidelines are followed, e-mail is good for democracy, said Jason Catlett, president of Junkbusters Corp., an anti-spam group in Green Brook, N.J.

``There’s no way to more quickly alienate a voter than to spam him,″ Catlett said.

Congress has been getting steadily more high-tech.

No members had Web pages before the start of the 104th Congress in 1995, and now all but six do, said House Administration Committee spokesman Jason Poblete.

While U.S. House offices only sporadically had e-mail accounts before the 104th Congress, Capitol Hill’s e-mail system now has about 10,000 accounts.

House members and staff can even order cafeteria food over the Internet.

This month, Congress for the first time even e-mailed a bill to the president for his signature.

At the same time, however, Congress has been slow to embrace mass e-mailing.

The House Administration Committee amended the mass mail _ or franking _ privilege in February to include mass e-mails.

Since then, fewer than 3 percent of letters the House Franking Commission has reviewed have been e-mails, although the percentage is expected to grow.

The franking commission reviews House members’ proposed mass mailings _ those going to more than 500 people _ to make sure they meet guidelines including that they lack campaign-related material or are being sent too close to an election, for example.

The Senate, which will spend about $13 million this year on mail, has no such required approvals because members police themselves, according to a spokeswoman at the Senate Rules and Administration Committee.

House members and committees spent $29 million on mail last year.

Almost every congressional office can, and does, receive e-mail from voters, most reply through regular mail.

E-mail replies are too informal, impersonal or difficult to track, said staff in several offices that were contacted.

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