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Report: Congress not able to cope with flood of e-mail

Congressional offices have been hit by a wave of 80-million e-mail messages a year that few senators and representatives are equipped to deal with, a study released Sunday says.

The surge in electronic communication began with the debate over President Clinton's impeachment and has continued to grow.

Senators get as many as 55,000 e-mails a month, and House members get up to 8,000, placing a tremendous burden on aides assigned to respond to a much smaller flow of regular mail, says the Congressional Management Foundation and George Washington University.

"Neither office budgets nor office technological capabilities have kept pace with the demands, leading to a growing disconnect between members of Congress and their constituents," CMF and George Washington found in the report E-Mail Overload In Congress: Managing a Communications Crisis.

The study, financed with a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts, blamed much of the increase on "the indiscriminate practices of grass-roots lobbying organizations and companies that are "spamming' congressional offices with millions of e-mails that they cannot possibly respond to."

Most e-mails going to senators and representatives are from people and groups outside their districts, and many "are routinely ignored by the offices because of a lack of resources or capability," the report says.

Although volume of e-mails continues to grow by about 1-million per month, few congressional offices take advantage of available technology to speed up responses, categorize e-mails by subject and develop mechanisms to separate e-mails sent by people from those generated by special-interest groups, the report found.

"Most Capitol Hill offices mistakenly believe that they are helpless to efficiently manage the growing demands they face as a result of the e-mail explosion. Approximately 90 percent of House and Senate offices continue to answer constituent e-mails with postal mail and fail to take advantage of available technologies that could reduce staff workloads and increase the response time to constituents," a statement accompanying the report said.

Rick Shapiro, CMF executive director, said members have access to technology that permits them to categorize e-mail from in-state and out of state sources. He said the software can break down e-mails by subject so they could be distributed to the appropriate staffer, who can then decide to send out a form response or give an individual answer.

"That is the future of this technology," Shapiro said, but "most members are falling short of that capability."