Masthead CMC Magazine December 1, 1995 / Page 10


Waiting for Congress

by Amelia DeLoach (

What happens when you email your congressional representatives?

To find out, I sent an email interview/questionnaire to every Congress member I could find an accurate address for. When I started to sending out these questionnaires, I employed the junk-mail method of "personalizing" each message by using each senator and representative's name--just like the mail they send me--since it supposedly will evoke a more positive response than "Dear Honorable Congressperson." One- by-one the messages were sent out beginning at 2 a.m. on a morning a few days before Thanksgiving. Given the timing of the interview requests, I knew that it would probably take a long time to gather responses. (After all, Congress has a Balanced Budget plan to consider before Christmas.) I also suspected that some legislators would have systems that could send out automatic responses to messages--by 2:30 a.m. from senators Bill Bradley (NJ) and Bob Graham (FL) offices had sent messages. Life was good. Congress seemed to have understood the whole Internet instant-gratification thing. Then I began to read:

Dear Friend,

Thank you for taking the time to write me via the Internet with your concerns. I assure you that your message is being read by me or someone on my Senate staff who handles the issue you are concerned about.

Current resources prohibit me from responding interactively to your specific concerns via the Internet. However, your views are being noted. If you have included a postal address in your message, you will receive a reply via the U.S. Postal Service. . . .

The first paragraph didn't phase me at first. The second, however, prompted a "conversation" with the computer. U.S. Postal Service? (Huh.) U.S. Postal Service!!!???? Snail Mail? (God forbid.) Dear Friend? (The name is Amelia.) Current resources prohibit me . . . ? (Email is quick, cheap, and saves trees.) If you have included a postal address . . . ? (Just type "r" at the prompt.)

I suspected that the rest of the responses would be like this one. Even so, I sent the rest of the messages that evening in hope that a real person would respond. The next afternoon, there were about 30 similar computer-generated email messages from our congresspersons. Some members of the House of Representatives even used the same canned message. They didn't even bother to put their state and district after their "signature." Instead, the bottom line reads "MEMBER OF CONGRESS." Eventually, I received 22 of these messages out of a total of 66 responses.

Meanwhile, the whole mailing address aspect of the message still seemed a little odd. I remembered calling Senator Sam Nunn's (GA) office a couple of years ago, when people were dying needlessly, to voice an opinion and the staffer asked for an address to confirm that I was from the senator's district. Thus, I figured the present request for an address was to determine if the sender was a member of the congressperson's constituency. But why send a response snail mail? After all, as a technologically advanced society we are moving into an electronic "only communicate by email" age, aren't we? If we can shop online and do research online, can't we have government online? Maybe not. A staffer for one of the members of the House of Representatives pointed out that sending their responses snail mail comes down to an issue of tracking. In short, their tracking system for U.S. mail is more reliable than for email, which he contends you can't effectively keep track of. This system probably holds true for most offices. (However, I still don't fully understand their system of tracking mail and email. It should also be noted that Washington D.C.'s mail system is among the nation's worst.)

Ironically, not receiving a "canned" email message has been positive news for this project. Those offices that have not sent messages include House Speaker Newt Gingrich's and Senator Ted Kennedy's (MA). Offices responding by phone or email include Rep. Vernon Ehlers (MI), Rep. Pete Stark (CA), Rep. Dan Schaefer (CO), Rep. Curt Weldon (PA), and Rep. Bobby Rush (IL).

Hopefully, their offices will be only a handful of respondents in an article that will appear in the March 1996 issue of CMC Magazine. Who knows what issues will eventually be discussed. Maybe we'll learn that computer-mediated communication is totally (in)effective for certain types of governmental communication. We might learn that access to government and the evolution of the democratic process are limited by personal time constraints more than physical, informational, or even monetary constraints. We might even discover that face-to-face interaction is the most effective way to communicate.Who knows. But one thing is for certain, I'm going to be making a lot of telephone calls. [CMC TOC]

If you, the reader, would like to see a specific aspect of CMC and democracy discussed in the March article, please contribute your questions to me, Amelia DeLoach. I can't promise that I will be able to use them. However, I do promise that you won't receive a response with a salutation of "Dear Friend."

Amelia DeLoach is Link Editor of and a frequent contributor to CMC Magazine.

Copyright © 1995 by Amelia DeLoach. All Rights Reserved.

This Issue / Index / CMC Studies Center / Contact Us