Net Surfing And E-Mail Clicking With Congress
By Ronald D. Elving, CQ Staff Writer
It is not hard to imagine the scene at the installation of the first telephone in the Capitol in 1879. Admiration and awe would no doubt have been mixed with more than a little apprehension.
A marvelous invention, the telephone, to be sure. But what good is it, one might have asked then, if only a few people have one? And when everyone has one, will it distort our daily lives in unforeseen, unwanted ways? What will become of correspondence, face-to-face meetings, eye contact, body language? What about privacy? What about being left alone?
Good questions -- whether in the context of Congress or of ordinary life. But questions of this kind are rarely addressed. Instead, technology supplies its own answers by moving rapidly past the questions. "What happens when . . . ?" soon becomes "Did anyone notice that . . . ?"
That happened with telephones and television. Now it is happening with the Internet, the World Wide Web and the sending of electronic mail.
A study by Jack Bonner, a political consultant, and James A. Thurber, director of the American University Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, now tells us that Congress is getting wired faster and making more use of the Net than most thought possible a few years ago.
The study, billed as the most comprehensive of its kind to date (researchers surveyed 70 offices in the Senate and 200 in the House), found that:
Nearly 90 percent of all Hill offices now use e-mail.
95 percent of offices receiving outside e-mail reported their e-mail volume was growing.
58 percent of the offices reported their members used the Internet regularly, while 97 percent of their staff members say they do research on the Net.
Senators are somewhat more likely to surf the Net than House members, Republicans slightly more likely to do so than Democrats. The young members tend to be more cyber-savvy, the researchers say, but not by much.
The study did not identify a trend so much as it marked a milestone. With most of Congress now wired and partaking of the new global offerings of the Net, the rest is a mopping-up operation. Questions about the downside will be overtaken by answers that are fait accompli.
E-mail, the Net and even the personal computer itself may never be as pervasive or as potent in American life as the telephone. But it is also possible that they will be more so.
All this represents a kind of progress, of course. Who can object to Congress reaching out for more information from more sources in "real time"?
But the e-mail issues are akin to those raised by the telephone more than a century ago. New communication modes have implications beyond their convenience. Yes, the Luddites who resisted telecommunications a century ago look ridiculous in historical hindsight. But some of the questions they probably asked were important.
Even now, e-mail is joining the phone call, the fax and the postcard in the arsenals of lobbyists who specialize in what is called grass-roots campaigning. The Net may even be the medium of choice for mounting such a campaign. Prospective participants can be contacted, coached and even connected to the target's computers -- all by means of e-mail.
Within a matter of hours, a particular bill, amendment or nomination can be identified, targeted and brought to earth by a battery of ready, willing and properly equipped constituents. This may not be everyone's idea of authentic grass-roots expression, which is why some call the practice Astroturf. But what it lacks in spontaneity it makes up in pure efficiency.
Imagine, then, what will happen when, at some point, e-mail is as common as the telephone.
"You used to have to sit down and write a letter or make a call," says Thurber. "You had to make a commitment, as opposed to just clicking on Mr. Icon."
Thurber said that "list servers," or automated programs for sending such mail to many addresses at once, would soon be available for targeting Congress -- "if they aren't already."
E-mail may be just one more form of communication, but because it combines immediacy, volume and permanence it has enormous potential for what Thurber calls "amplifying reaction." It makes possible instant plebiscites on policy -- the "electronic town hall meeting" that Ross Perot was so excited about in 1992 (and which Thurber says he is against).
Take, for example, the CNN telecast of President Clinton's foreign policy team being grilled for 90 often-embarrassing minutes at Ohio State. Heckled by war protesters on one hand, the trio was hard pressed on the other by questioners concerned about an inconclusive game plan. Many viewers suddenly perceived the administration as forcing an ill-conceived policy on an unwilling nation.
How might that moment have been magnified if everyone watching had been able to register their reaction with Congress instantly via e-mail?
© 1998 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All rights reserved.