Capital slow to send e-mail Progress: Congress and the White House use the Postal Service.

July 13, 1998|By Geoffrey C. Upton | Geoffrey C. Upton,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Flick on your computer, open a Web browser and the nation's capital appears a mouse click away. It takes seconds to share an opinion with your senator, plan a visit to Congress or trace the progress of a bill.

But Washington, alas, has not made it to your inbox. Though it takes moments for e-mail to travel to your elected officials, weeks usually pass before you get a meaningful reply. And when it does arrive, it generally comes via "snail mail," on paper.

In fact, the electronic superhighway that passes through the nation's capital remains largely a one-way street, starting at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

President Clinton has received 2.7 million e-mail messages in the past five years and now gets 2,500 a day. The number of e-mails sent out in his name?

Zero.

"People expect that when they send an e-mail, they'll get an e-mail letter," said Stephen K. Horn, who oversees electronic correspondence at the White House. "Unfortunately, big bureaucracies and big organizations like this cannot move at the speed of light."

Nor, for the most part, have Washington's elected officials bothered to capitalize on e-mail technology to inform or survey constituents. Instead, they stick with the printed newsletters and brochures they've used for decades.

According to an American University study, nearly 90 percent of congressional offices use e-mail internally, but only 6.5 percent routinely reply electronically to constituent e-mail. Fifteen percent of offices use e-mail to keep citizens informed of activity on Capitol Hill.

"In the last three years, Congress has made significant progress in using e-mail," concludes James Thurber, director of American University's Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies. "But they could do a lot better."

Suppose you send an e-mail to Rep. Constance A. Morella, the Republican who represents upscale Montgomery County, home to many of Maryland's high-tech businesses. You'll get this polite, automated reply:

"Thank you for your electronic correspondence. I have received your comments and will be back in touch as soon as possible. Since I will be sending my response to you in a letter, please be sure that you have included your name and complete postal address."

That follow-up could take weeks to arrive at your home.

Maryland's Democratic Senators, Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes, respond to most of their e-mail on paper, too. The same goes for Democratic Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin and Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who represent the Baltimore area.

The problem is not unique to Washington, or to politics. Businesses around the country are readily accepting e-mail from consumers, but having a difficult time dealing with it once it arrives.

In fact, government may even be ahead of business in this regard, says David Cooperstein, a senior analyst with Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass.

In many businesses, Cooperstein says, e-mail messages are lost, misrouted or replied to incorrectly, creating an "operational nightmare."

Most congressional offices, by way of contrast, have systems for dealing with incoming e-mail. But staffers say there's a compelling reason to avoid responding in kind.

"It would be very easy for someone to take a message, change a few words and say 'Look what I got from Senator Hatch,'" says David Hansen, systems administrator for Orrin G. Hatch, the Utah Republican.

By sticking with postal mail, many lawmakers believe they can dodge assaults by electronic pranksters or political enemies.

"There is no way we can guarantee that something that arrives in someone's [electronic] mailbox hasn't been tampered with," says Susan Sullam, Cardin's press secretary. "Our main concern is that the congressman not be misrepresented in some way."

That concern is shared by the White House, which was burned in the early 1990s by bogus e-mail sent by pranksters using the return address of presidenhitehouse.gov.

"We decided that until it is a little more difficult to spoof e-mail, we'll continue to respond by paper," says Horn, the White House e-mail director.

Now, when you e-mail Clinton, you get this auto-reply: "This is the only electronic message you will receive from whitehouse.gov. No other message purporting to be from the President or his staff with an address at whitehouse.gov is authentic."

There is another political concern - a quick reply to e-mail could generate charges of unfairness.

"You don't want it to appear that your high-tech constituents have greater access than your less fortunate, off-line constituents," said Chris Casey, who advises Senate Democrats on technology issues.

In addition, many constituents still treasure an old-fashioned, printed response bearing a politician's signature, no matter how much longer it takes.

"Constituents like to have that hard copy to hang on their wall," Thurber observed.

As a result, few offices send out mailings electronically, and many staffers seem unmoved the prospect.

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