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Unequally Wired

Ever eager to meet and greet large numbers of registered voters, members of Congress have lurched into the digital age over the past few years, securing email addresses and, in most cases, their own Web sites.

Of the 540 representatives, senators, and territorial delegates who serve in the U.S. Congress, 83 percent have home pages on the Internet.

But Congress has been slower to open up its mailbag to accept electronic correspondence from constituents. Thus, only 68 percent have electronic mail addresses.

According to congressional staffers, that is because fewer than a third of the email messages they receive come from constituents. The rest consists of bulk mailings from political groups and commercial e-mail, also called "spam."

In fact, several dozen congressmen have tired of the traffic they receive, and pulled the plug on their email. Clearly, these members prefer to use the Web as a one-way vehicle to reach their constituents.

According to Sen. Phil Gramm's (R-Tx) press secretary, Larry Neal, the senator has no Internet e-mail account of his own, and may not get one in the forseeable future.

"We recently explored the question of opening up a public mailbox and came to the conclusion that we're not geared up for it. We found that people who emailed us didn't want a letter in response, they wanted an e-mail," said Neal. "We just don't have a mechanism for dealing with the potential volume."

But not all members of Congress mind the mail volume, saying they like to use the medium to keep on top of the national consciousness. Several, including Sen. Max Cleland (D-Georgia), say they place a high priority on answering all of his electronic correspondence.

Notes Sen. Cleland, "My staff and I read e-mail two to three times a day and take pride in responding in less than a day's time. People appreciate you being responsive to their concerns and feel like they are being heard. . ."

Greg Harris, deputy communication director for Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Missouri), says the aim of Sen. Ashcroft's staff is to respond to every e-mail, as if it had arrived by post. "We consider authentic e-mail just as effective as written letters," Harris said.

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