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.
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.
Of the 40 letters from constituents, only five are personally written. One comes from a woman inquiring about a van service for senior citizens, another comes from a man who wants to buy flags that have flown over the Capitol, and an antique-gun dealer writes to criticize a bill that would limit out-of-state sales at gun shows.
Terry Allen, Largent's administrative assistant, says mail can be useful in showing legislators the unintended consequences of laws they enact. Often, he says, letters alert them to a nonideological, programmatic change that needs to be made.
But Largent and his staff concede that when it comes to the big issues, mail is not a crucial factor. The only letters that get urgent attention, staffers say, are those written by large employers in the district or big-name supporters.
Otherwise, Largent will see a representative sample of the week's mail, including some offbeat correspondence - like the letter from a California man who says that two secret CIA agents, "Poodle Lady" and "Goggle Man," have been harassing him.
Most of Largent's correspondence goes no farther than the desk of Bryce Heavner, a twentysomething legislative assistant who spends 90 percent of his time crafting replies.
Much of Mr. Heavner's job is rote and simple. When a mass-mailed postcard comes in about Medicare, for instance, he calls up a prewritten response on his computer, types in the sender's address, and prints out a personal-looking letter, complete with a computer-generated signature.
"It's basically computers talking to computers," he says.
But the volume can be overwhelming. Each letter has to be logged and proofread by two people, and whenever a constituent has a question about an obscure bill, like the Downed Animal Protection Act, Heavner and the three other legislative assistants in Largent's office must research the bill and draft a reply. The eight people in Largent's office, Mr. Allen says, spend about 30 percent of their time on mail alone.
Still, Largent says it's important to respond to constituents, not just to win votes, but because it "affirms to people that they're doing something, and encourages them to do more." Largent directs his staff to answer every letter within two weeks.
Some senior members share Largent's view. Rep. Andrew Jacobs (D) of Indiana, a 29-year veteran of Congress, still answers most of his correspondence personally, routinely carrying a dictating machine with him wherever he goes. He says he dictates as many as 50 letters a day. "I've always believed," he says, "that you have to stay in touch."
But others disagree.
Bob Carr, a former congressman from Michigan, says the longer one stays in Congress, the more one realizes that the same people write in over and over again (staffers call them "pen pals"), and that the most prominent people in any district are usually too busy to write.
"The longer you've been there," Carr says of Congress, "the less the mail means anything."