[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.
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.