WASHINGTON — They still hand-deliver mail three times a day in the Russell Senate Office Building. The hand-written letter is not yet dead.
Email traffic, however, has swollen so fast that it's become a headache in the halls of Congress.
A hot-button issue burning up the infobahn? Thanks to technology, instant constituent communications come in a deluge now. Numbers are up anywhere from 200 percent to 1,000 percent over the past decade, according to a new report from the nonpartisan Congressional Management Foundation.
But staff to handle the additional work of reading and writing back has not. Congress hasn't upped the size of personnel offices since 1979.
"We don't have the time, staff or infrastructure to give a personalized response because the volume of mail is so great," said Mary Petrovic, a spokesman for Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo.
Emails to Congress spiked dramatically in 2009 when highly partisan debates over health care, cap and trade, and the $800 billion economic stimulus bill became magnets for angry voters egged on by advocacy groups.
The foundation said that 5,000 to 10,000 associations, corporations and nonprofit organizations devote parts of their websites to flooding Capitol Hill with emails.
"It's become a din," Petrovic said. "It's very hard to make sure people are getting through."
If there was a tipping point, it was likely the anthrax scare in 2001.
Only one year before, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., could count the number of constituent emails on both hands: 8. Letters? Exactly 2,347.
But the culture of communication changed after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks when mail containing traces of the deadly toxin turned up on Capitol Hill. Congressional mail began to undergo more screenings.
Members of Congress still hear from their constituents the old-fashioned way. Roberts received nearly 20,000 letters last year. But his emails rose to nearly 63,000.
Likewise for Rep. Sam, Graves, R-Mo. In 2001, he received 5,500 emails and 5,100 letters. Last year: 35,000 emails and 8,000 letters.
Is it all saved? Official congressional records now go to the National Archives for safekeeping. Office correspondence belongs to the lawmaker who decides what to keep.
Roberts holds onto issue emails and deletes casework requests because of the personal information.
Back in the 1800s, constituent letters and petitions used to be stuffed in bins tucked away in Capitol attics and basements
"We've heard that on winter nights the workmen used to set fire to the bins just to keep warm," said Senate Historian Donald Ritchie.
Whatever the century, the mail is chock full of gripes and demands, as well as the lonely cry for help: a farmer seeking compensation for damage to his land caused by an army encampment during the War of 1812, a Civil War widow seeking help securing her husband's military pension.
Now it still might be a problem with veterans' benefits, or a senior having Social Security troubles, or a family with immigration concerns.
Meanwhile, citizen petitions to right the social wrongs of an earlier age, like slavery and women's suffrage, or accomplish more prosaic tasks, like building a canal, were another form of constituent communication that filled Capitol Hill mailboxes.
The National Archives has reams of them containing hundreds of thousands of signatures.
An anti-women's vote group warned in its congressional petition that passing a suffrage amendment "would be an official endorsement of nagging as a national policy."
Richard McCulley, historian at the Archives' Center for Legislative Archives, called the petitions the "social media of the 19th century."
"They're really incredible documents," he said. "They really show American democracy in action."
Which, even in the age of high-speed Internet, can still be pretty slow, the Congressional Management Foundations points out.
Most of the House and Senate offices it surveyed place a high priority on responding to constituent mail, and most do so now by email.
But "a significant number of congressional offices require more than three weeks to respond...if the office does not have a pre-existing, prepared response," the report stated.
Still, McCulley wondered if even as technology has made lawmakers more accessible, it has made them more remote. Though communications in the days of gas lamps and cobblestone streets was more cumbersome, it was also more "deliberate," he said.
"It was meant to be taken very seriously and it was," the historian said. "We've just become so awash in electronic communication. It's almost just too easy to click a button and send something. You wonder how seriously it's taken."
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