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Constituents Unleash Mail On Congress, Taxing Staffs

By Sam WalkerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 10, 1995


JUST five months into his freshman term in Congress, George Radanovich broke one of the institution's oldest taboos: He started answering his mail with a form letter.

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In the two-page note, the California Republican explains that while he welcomes constituent mail, the task of responding to it all has become an enormous burden on his staff.

Though the representative's move is a rare one, it may not be for long. The number of letters sent to Congress has nearly doubled in the last three years, from 20 million in 1992 to a projected 38 million in 1995.

The main culprit, members say, is not a rise in public interest, but the advent of massive "grass-roots" postcard campaigns engineered by some of Washington's most powerful lobbies.

Current and former congressional members indicate that the surge in mail has started to have an adverse impact. Once considered the bedrock of representative democracy, constituent mail is becoming more troublesome and, because of the sheer volume, perhaps less relevant than ever before.

"I don't want to be remembered as the congressman who had a fantastic communications operation because the only work done by staff was turning around mail and messages," Radanovich writes. "The system of constituent communications that was widespread on the Hill in years past, in my opinion, is not only inefficient, it doesn't respect the American taxpayer."

According to Paul Lozito, acting director of the Congressional Post Office, Congress receives about 136,000 letters a day: a load that takes 100 clerks, working two 8.5-hour shifts, six days a week to sort.

Despite the advent of faxes and E-mail, which some believed would reduce the amount of paper correspondence, the Capitol mailroom is routinely backlogged by as many as eight days, and some office staffs spend up to 80 percent of their time answering mail.

While Congress has taken some steps to privatize its mail service and to limit the amount of free or "franked" mail members can send out, the institution remains at the mercy of incoming mail.

The changing role of the mail was well-apparent one Friday morning last month in the office of Rep. Steve Largent (R) of Oklahoma.

At 8 a.m., the interns in Representative Largent's office emptied out the first mailbag: one of three or four delivered throughout the day. This bundle included 25 oversized envelopes, 34 letters from out of state, 29 letters from areas of Oklahoma not inside Largent's district, and 40 from constituents.

Assuming there will be two more similar deliveries, Largent's daily mail count will reach 384, or about 2,300 for the week. In addition, there will be 100 or more faxes, several telegrams, and anywhere from 80 to 150 phone calls a day, staffers say, all of which will be answered like letters. Soon, the office will be wired for E-mail and Internet communication.

Of the 128 letters in the bundle, the majority are mass-mailings. There are 22 prewritten, preaddressed postcards generated by lobbying groups dealing with three topics: the flag burning amendment, Medicare cuts, and town meetings. There is an invitation to the fifth annual "Celebration of America's Bounty," a flier for the American Express "Government Card" ("even as your trip begins, the government card is working for you"), and generic letters from groups like the American Life League and the National Grain and Feed Association.