On Writing your Congressman

April 2, 2012

[This is part 1 of a two part post; for part 2 click here]

It’s no secret that the Internet has radically transformed the practice of legislative politics on Capitol Hill. Information is everywhere, and moves like lightning. And so I’m going to spend a few days writing some quick posts about one dimension of the change — changes to constituent communication — which is exemplary of the bigger picture of technological changes on the Hill.

Despite the somewhat obvious nature of the basic thesis — the information explosion has altered many aspects of legislative politics — people sometimes underestimate the magnitude of the change. After all, some of the trappings of the Hill give off the appearance of an institution and a culture that strongly defies technological change. Official politics still takes place face to face, both on the floor and in committee, in their office; Members still physically walk from their offices to the floor in order to debate and cast votes; and heck, the Senate still votes by calling the roll, no different than they did in the 18th century. The visible practice of politics, as seen on C-SPAN or gleaned from walking around the Hill,  is hardly different than it was in 1960. Or 1860, for that matter.

But below the surface, things have radically changed. Members no longer seek information so much as look for better ways to sort and filter it. Staffers are no longer chained to their desks and their hard-line telephones. And, perhaps most importantly, the relay of information from the Hill to the rest of the country (and vice-versa) has been reduced, time-wise, to basically zero. As soon as it happens here, it’s known everywhere. And not only is the information relay faster after something happens, but the outside, non-Hill world feels closer to the policy-making process before anything happens. And that has consequences.

And the most basic consequence is that which corresponds to the most basic feature of a legislature: the representation of a body of constituents by an elected individual, and the communicative relationship between the constituents, the representative, the election, and the political and policy decisions the representative makes. To which I present figure 1, which plots incoming mail to the House and Senate since 1996, as a function of delivery medium. The top line (black) is incoming emails, the bottom line (red) incoming postal mail.

If you don’t work in politics, this graph is probably pretty striking. If you do, it’s probably either familiar or terrifying, or both. Members of Congress interact with constituents in a variety of ways: in person, both in their districts and in Washington; over the phone when people call their offices; and through the mailing of letters. We can’t say for sure how many people a Member meets in person or how many phone calls come to the Hill each day. But I think it’s safe to say that, traditionally, neither of those forms of communication ate up nearly as much time as the mail did in a congressional office. The mail comes three times a day in Congress, and it’s unrelenting.

At least that’s my recollection from 1998, when I was a lowly intern in the House and spent much of my day opening it. And so it makes me shudder to think that, back then, the postal mail was still the majority of mail that came to Congress. Since then, of course, it has fallen (about 16% less postal mail incoming to the House since 1998, down from about 15 million pieces to about 12 million pieces). But it’s been replaced by three hundred million emails. In fact, postal mail is now just 7% of all mail coming to the Hill. And that 7% is actually 100% of the mail that was coming in 1994. Terrifying.

A few things worth discussing:

1. First, some technical details. Email was first available and used on the Hill in late 1994 or 1995. No hard data exists on total usage prior to 1996, and data for 1996 and 1997 are only estimates. Second, incoming postal mail does not include mail sent to district offices, just mail sent to the Capitol complex in Washington; email volumes include all mail sent to House or Senate email addresses, regardless of end-user location.

2. More technical stuff. The email numbers are post-spam filters (i.e. only mail that actually reached end-users). This makes them slightly difficult to compare year to year, since the spam filters (as well as the spam senders) have gotten dramatically better over the years. In fact, the large peak in 2007 and the drop-off following it are almost certainly do to the explosion of more intelligent spam and the corresponding adoption of powerful new and improved spam filters in both chambers that year. The lesson, as always, is that these numbers represent a trend, not precise reflections of reality, and should be treated with that in mind. Especially since the spam filter for postal mail — an intern throwing the junk mail in the garbage can — has not changed during the period.

3. With postal mail, it was always easy to know if you were being written to by a constituent or by someone from outside your district. The rule of thumb for sorting such mail is typically something like this: if it’s a constituent or interest group from our district, put it in the pile for things that we will promptly respond to; if it’s a constituent from outside our district, put it in another pile for things that we will promptly deliver to the correct office; if it’s a interest group from outside our district, look through it quickly and see if it’s personal or a form letter / mass spamming. If it’s the former, consider responding. If it’s the latter, definitely trash it.

The problem with email, though, is that you can’t tell if the sender is from the district or not. And there are quite obvious incentives to not exclude anyone who might be a constituent. And so the incoming email has a tendency to nationalize the constituent communications techniques used in most Member offices; there’s just isn’t a sorting algorithm that  lets you separate your constituents from other citizens.*** Which means that the information context Members are facing in their offices is much more national in scope, even after they’ve tried to filter it. This has consequences. For one, it forces a complete rethinking of an office communications strategy. But it also distorts one’s perspective of district opinion, and tends to orient Members toward national public policy; people from outside the district are much more likely to communicate about policy issues than distributive politics such as grants or earmarks. More on this tomorrow.

4. From an institutional point of view, one key consequence of this explosion is the pressure it puts on congressional staff. Constituent and/or interest group service and communications is an important aspect of what goes on in Members’ personal office, but it is far from the only thing that goes on. To the degree that more staffers need to be allocated to the collection, processing, and responding tasks associated with incoming communications, the less staff time that there can be allocated to policy or other work, or the longer hours staffers need to put in. And while the number of staffers working in personal offices has increased modestly in the last generation (about 6% increase in Representatives’ offices since 1982), the prospects for a significant future increase — namely the proposition of a substantial increase in the Representatives’ MRAs or the Senators’ SOPOEA — seem quite dim.

*** This was (somewhat) sloppy writing, to make a point. I probably should have said “definitively lets you separate,” since there are certainly methods to filter out some non-constituents, the most popular being the IQ CMS software. I address the pros/cons of IQ in my followup post. The most important problem is that while IQ easily filters out people who weren’t trying to send you non-constituent mail, it is easily and routinely beaten by those who are strategically and purposefully sending mail disguised as constituent mail.

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16 Responses to On Writing your Congressman

  1. Tuesday Cup O' Coffee (April 3, 2012) on April 3, 2012 at 7:55 am

    [...] Matt Glassman on how the internet has impacted how many people “write” to their representatives in Congress: http://www.mattglassman.com/?p=3139 [...]

  2. [...] I discussed the explosion of inbound email to Congress, and some of its possible impacts, particularly the way it alters a congressional [...]

  3. Daniel Schuman on April 3, 2012 at 11:40 am

    Matt,

    Thanks for the interesting post. There’s been a lot of work done on this topic, particularly by the Congressional Management Foundation (http://www.congressfoundation.org/projects/communicating-with-congress), that may be worth linking to. You’ve made two points that I’d like to address.

    Regarding point 3: when Congressional offices receive email, it’s through the writerep site (https://writerep.house.gov/writerep/welcome.shtml) that requires communicants to enter their zip code (with the plus four.) This means that Member offices know whether their correspondent is within the district and will handle the mail accordingly. It is possible to put in the wrong zip code, but few people do this. As a general rule, Members know whether the person who is emailing them is in district.

    Regarding point 4: You are right to say that this increase in (e)mail puts pressure on Congressional staff, although it’s much worse than you think. Member officers have gone from a part-time LC in the mid-80s to the equivalent of 1.5 to 2 right now. And the number of staff in the personal office has actually shrunk since the 80s, not grown. There were approximately 7500 personal office staff in 1985, and around 6800 in 2007. (Source it the Vital Statistics Book). I’ve written about this here: http://sunlightfoundation.com/blog/2010/12/21/keeping-congress-competent-staff-pay-turnover-and-what-it-means-for-democracy/) There’s also a shift from people working in the DC office to the District Office, which generally means that less people are available in policymaking roles.

    For more on the leg branch approps budget crunch, see this article: http://sunlightfoundation.com/blog/2012/03/27/will-the-houses-operations-budget-be-squeezed-by-appropriators/

  4. Reuben on April 4, 2012 at 1:16 pm

    Can’t the congressmen track IP addresses? Of course, that’s not a foolproof strategy either, because constituents could be traveling and sending e-mails from IPs outside the district, but it should work for the majority of mails.

    • Matt on April 4, 2012 at 1:26 pm

      They can, but as you say, that potentially loses constituent emails, which is the last thing they want to do.

      The more common filter method is to put up comment forms on the webpage that force people to enter a zip code in order to send an email. This is a decent filter, but it has problems too, which I discuss in my second blog post here:

      http://www.mattglassman.com/?p=3147

  5. [...] pm on April 4, 2012 | 0 Comment Permalink | Log in to leave a Comment Tags: Congress (4,062) Matt Glassman notes it was easy for members of Congress to prioritize their interactions with constituents when [...]

  6. False on April 4, 2012 at 2:14 pm

    This article is false. Most congressional offices use the IQ-correspondence system, which requires e-mailers to include their address. If their address is not within the district of the Congressman they’re writing to, the e-mail does not get forwarded to the congressional office. Therefore, there is an algorithm in place to reject these non-constituent e-mails.

    • Matt on April 4, 2012 at 2:21 pm

      False:

      I take up the issue of IQ in my second post:

      http://www.mattglassman.com/?p=3147

      It’s certainly a decent filter, but it’s not perfect: For one, it only works if people send email via the form on the House website or via a form on an office website. Anything sent directly to staff is not caught by it, since no zip code is entered. Second, those forms are easily beaten by people who want to mass email Congress — just make up an address. That wasn’t possible with postal mail — mass mailings were easily detected. Third, the web forms may dissuade actual constituents from writing, which is not a great result.

      So yes, there are filters. But they aren’t nearly as good as the old “intern chucks the junk mail” filter for the postal mail.

      • False on April 4, 2012 at 4:47 pm

        Matt,

        In my experience, IQ verifies whether addresses were legitimate. Furthermore, my office sent out snail mail replies to all e-mails, so if the address somehow was not legitimate, then the letter was returned to sender and the writer of the e-mail was subsequently taken out of the IQ system. Also, most Hill staffers don’t give out their e-mails to individual constituents unless it’s for casework or something more substantive than just expressing an opinion. Rather, they encourage them to send the e-mail through the website or refer them to their individual Member if they’re not a constituent. Then IQ roots out the legitimate from the illegitimate.

        I think most Capitol Hill staffers who use IQ would agree that there aren’t too many illegitimate addresses getting through the system. I wonder if you were aware of IQ when you made your first post because the existence of IQ seems to negate your entire argument about an algorithm not existing to root out constituents.

        • Matt on April 4, 2012 at 6:07 pm

          False:

          Thanks for the comments.

          Of course I was aware of IQ — I was using CMS software 15 years ago on the Hill. I just think that IQ is not particularly well equipped to filter out strategic email.

          I was certainly sloppy in my initial post; my point was not that there’s a flood of completely unrecognizable email. My point was simply that the massive increase in email to the Hill widens the natural constituency of every office beyond the district, efforts to the contrary be damned. And that this has effects. Especially when paired with office uses of wider outgoing communications strategies.

          Think of it this way: email is a lot more like phone calls have always been — you can use various methods to verify that you are dealing with a constituent, but you can’t be nearly as sure as with the postal mail. In fact, free long-distance and cell phones have made the phones similarly problematic; non-constituents can easily pretend to be constituents that way now, too, at very low cost.

          I think you are underestimating the amount of strategic communication sent to the Hill. And that only makes strategic emailing more valuable.

          But I understand your point of view.

          matt

          • False on April 4, 2012 at 6:57 pm

            I definitely agree with you about the phones! Thanks for the discussion.

  7. Bill Logan on April 4, 2012 at 2:22 pm

    Given the problems of email, would sending an actual (postal) letter to one’s representative still be worthwhile? In the age of email, an actual letter would probably draw attention and might perhaps be valued more than an email. But given the security procedures now in place for mail sent to the Capitol, I doubt that it would be timely received.

    • Matt on April 4, 2012 at 2:27 pm

      Email, postal mail, and phone calls are all still important gauges for offices as to popular opinion on issues. I would personally suggest phone calls, but any of the methods will probably get you equally factored into what “the mail is saying” when that is reported up the chain. Of course, there is wide variation across offices and issues as to how important “what the mail is saying” is, but there are not many offices that completely ignore it.

      matt

  8. Bill M. on April 4, 2012 at 2:46 pm

    Our organization has strongly heard from staffers not to send mail, especially to the DC office because it continues to be irradiated (due to the 2001 anthrax mailings) which delays receipt of the mail (sometimes for weeks ) and can cause the quality of the mail to be very poor – e.g. it looks burned and can disintegrate before receipt. So we tell them when it’s really important to make a phone call and on basic issues where we just want folks to make sure that they stand up and be counted. We figure that an actual piece of mail would be important to a Member so maybe we should go back to that? Is this strategy now outdated?

  9. [...] Matt Glassman notes it was easy for members of Congress to prioritize their interactions with constituents when all they received were letters in the mail. [...]

  10. [...] Matt Glassman, an adjunct professor of political science at Catholic University, thinks it might be creating reasons for individual members to focus less on local politics and more on attention-getting national issues. … Glassman's [...]

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