E-Mailing Congress for No Reason

Here's a shocker: The majority of people who contact Congress do not believe lawmakers are interested in what they have to say. Nevertheless, driven by online advocacy campaigns, people are writing to their lawmakers in record numbers.

In fact, according to a new report (PDF) by the CMF (Congressional Management Foundation), almost half of voting age Americans (44 percent) contacted a U.S. senator or representative in the past five years. Among the Internet users who sent a message to Congress, 84 percent were asked to by a third party such as an advocacy group.

Just four years ago, a similar survey showed only 18 percent of voting age Americans had contacted their lawmakers.

"We found the Internet has contributed to millions more people learning about, and joining in, policy debates that used to be conducted by those operating inside the Beltway," said Beverly Bell, executive director of the nonprofit CMF. "These people are politically aware and politically active, and communicating with them should be a priority for every member of Congress."

But it's not. Why? It's really hard for any lawmaker's staff to deal with, say, the million e-mails that arrived this morning. All say the same thing; all demand the same vote for or against an issue. Even the CMF admits, "The constituent expectation for on-demand, online information can place a strain on many congressional offices already struggling with resource limitations and communications strategies designed for old media."

When lawmakers do respond, constituents are unhappy with the results, according to the CMF report. The most common reasons given for dissatisfaction were that the response did not address their concerns (64 percent) and that it was too politically biased (51 percent).

So, in summary, the same technology that empowers millions to mass e-mail form letters to lawmakers also drives members of Congress to mass e-mail boilerplate responses to constituents in return. This is what we call a push.

Little wonder, then, that Congress' approval rating is somewhere south of the Mendoza Line.