Congress did not log on for the fun of it. Rather, the hype surrounding the Internet, combined with the mushrooming population of the Internet community, lured them online.
According to statistics from New York-based research firm Media Metrix, the Net today boasts some 53 million users. That is close to 20 percent of the U.S. population, or just under the combined population of every major city in the United States.
However tempting it may be to Beltway politicos to reach out to an audience of that size, the open nature of the Internet has made it a difficult medium. For instance, there's no way to be sure that an Internet message comes from a user who is of voting age, or even lives in the congressional district.
Then there's the problem of email from non-voters. Congressional mailing addresses have long been public domain, but sending a large volume of mail to Congress been never been this easy. Hundreds of Web sites publish directories of congressional email addresses. Tools for mass-mailing are more widely circulated than ever.
Unfortunately for Congress, traffic from constituents is still in the minority, accounting for about a third of all email traffic received, and in some cases as little as 10 percent. The bulk of the mailbag is divided between mail from wired groups of political activists and commercial email.
Attitudes toward the email vary, however. Some staffers are annoyed by the volume, others are grateful it didn't arrive in the mailbag. "At least junk email is a lot easier to sort through and delete," notes one staffer.