RESTON, VIRGINIA — Reston, Virginia.
YOUR CONGRESSMAN likes you more than your mother. How do you know? Who was the last to send you a letter?
Congress has advantages that mothers don't. Mothers buy their own stamps. Congress does not. It has a perk called the franking privilege. This means congressmen don't need stamps. They could mail you a telephone book -- or a brick -- without using a single stamp.
The frank is to Congress what a microphone and a sequined brassiere are to Madonna. Congress mailed 900 million pieces of mail in the 1988 election -- nearly four letters for every man, woman and child in the country. It will spend $80 million on franked mail this year. A typical congressional office receives about 10,000 cards and letters each year. Answering this mail is a less daunting task than it might appear; Congress has 31,000 )) staffers. This horde of bright, young, college-educated staffers advises Congress, crafts legislation and runs the computers.
Computers are the key. Computers generate the mass mailings and spit out the form responses to constituent mail. If you write to a representative about, say, your concern about non-biodegradable diapers, his reply will assure you of his love of nature. It probably won't mention defiled diapers; it is a computer letter on the environment. You have now been coded on his computer list of environmentally concerned citizens . . . forever. And you can now expect a letter every three months ''updating'' you on your representative's exertions on behalf of our environment.
Form letters also serve to enforce the first rule of legislators: avoid controversy. That is why one citizen writing a pro-gun control letter, and another writing an anti-gun control letter, may actually get the same reply. A carefully chiseled response will leave the impression he supports both viewpoints without ever revealing his voting record.
What happens if a congressman gets a letter that the computer's form responses cannot categorize and answer? I wrote a letter which blew some fuses in Congress' computers. I asked them to support special funding to the FBI to examine the fate of Elvis, and find him if possible. And since 44 percent of all legislation passed by Congress is commemorative (Tap Dance Week, Duckling Month, Decade of the Brain), and since one out of three Americans doesn't know that the earth revolves around the sun, I requested that Congress fight ignorance by declaring ''National Orbit Awareness Week.'' I mailed my letter to congressmen from every state of the union, an equal number of Democrats and Republicans.
Responses came slowly. With no computer form letter to assist, my letter forced congressional offices through the three stages of an alcoholic: denial, (''This couldn't have been sent to my office''); anger (''We don't have a form letter for this nut case''), and resignation (''We're going to have to take a stand on this'').
The overwhelming fear of offending any potential voter was reflected by many letters. A Wisconsin member called National Orbit Awareness Week ''a good idea,'' but claimed it would be ''hypocritical'' to sponsor the legislation, as he opposes congressional commemoratives. But, he added, ''it is likely you will have my support when it reaches the floor of the House of Representatives.''
Regarding Elvis Presley, this member called special FBI funding to locate him ''an unnecessary use of taxpayer money'' and labeled his death ''a well documented event. . . . The only way to truly lay to rest the reported findings would be to extract him from his tomb.'' He wrote that some respect must be given to the deceased. One vote for the earth's orbit but no sympathy for the National Enquirer.
A Minnesota congressman said, ''The views you have expressed mirror my own. . . . I certainly would support National Orbit Awareness Week.'' A solid vote for National Orbit Week! But having gone out on a limb for the commemorative, he skipped any mention of Elvis.
Other answers ran the gamut. A Massachusetts freshmen, who apparently hasn't coordinated his computer defenses, sent me an employment rejection letter. His Massachusetts colleague, from a well-known political family, utterly ignored my request for his views. He wrote, ''our future depends on people like yourself who get involved with the issues we face and work to make a difference in the world,'' and ''I hope you'll feel free to contact my office if we can be of any assistance.''
Politicians who have held office longer tend to be a bit more blunt. The senior member of the Bay State's delegation called spending funds to search for Elvis a ''gross misuse of federal funds.'' He ended with regrets ''that this is not a more positive response.'' He didn't need to apologize.