Finding Fault With Logic of Congress's E-Mail Plan

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Monday, June 12, 2006; Page D01

Congress to Lobby Groups: Drop Dead!

That could be the headline on the latest development from the House of Representatives. Last month the House quietly began to make it harder for interest groups to send large numbers of e-mails to lawmakers.

Increasingly, citizens are being forced to demonstrate a basic knowledge of mathematics to have any chance of communicating electronically with their congressional offices.

At the end of May, the House started to offer congressmen the chance to add an extra obstacle -- the completion of a math problem -- to their already difficult-to-penetrate e-mail systems. The purpose, officials said, was to cut down on the deluge of messages they receive.

The reaction from K Street has been swift and loud. "It's very disturbing," said Ralph G. Neas, president of People for the American Way.

"We are concerned," agreed David Willett, spokesman for the Sierra Club.

Most offices in the House are pretty impregnable as it is. Generally, before a person can send an e-mail to a member of the House, he or she must go to a lawmaker's Web site, click on "Write Your Rep," select the congressman's state, type in a Zip code that is in that state, and then fill out a form that includes name, address, city, e-mail address and phone number.

And all of that must be completed before an e-mail can either be composed or sent.

Even with these many impediments, lawmakers still bellyache that the torrent of e-mails they get every day is more than their staffs can handle. According to a recent study, electronic messages to the House doubled to 99 million from 2000 to 2004. In the Senate, the number of e-mails more than tripled to 83 million during the same period.

So the House's managers are adding what they call a logic puzzle to the hurdles that constituents must already scale before writing e-mails to members. In addition to the Zip code test and others, the system now used by a growing number of lawmakers also asks would-be e-mailers to solve a simple numbers problem.

For example, "What is 5 minus 1?" Or, "24 : What number appears at the beginning of this question?" Or, "Please solve the following math problem: 3 x 1?"

The idea is to ensure that only actual people -- and not mass-mailing computers of the kind often used by interest groups -- will send e-mails to the House from now on.

"This feature has been designed to minimize the amount of mass e-mail generated by automated programs," wrote Jay Eagen, the House's chief administrative officer, in a note to House members.

From lawmakers' perspective, the new barrier is a good way to block millions of cookie-cutter lobby letters that are conceived and created by giant trade associations, labor unions and the like. According to some lawmakers, these often-identically worded missives too often come from people who don't live in the congressman's districts or who don't even know that messages have been sent in their names. In other words, these pleas are either misdirected or fraudulent.

Such meaningless messages, these lawmakers contend, take too much time away from their overworked aides and give a false impression of public sentiment to boot.

Interest-group leaders vehemently disagree. E-mails have become the communication of choice on Capitol Hill. They're cheap, easy to use and, unlike postal letters, they aren't delayed by weeks of inspection, which was necessitated by the anthrax attack on the Senate soon after Sept. 11, 2001.

Lobbying groups also object on principled grounds. How does it make sense, they ask, for elected representatives to erect walls between themselves and their constituents, rather than take them down? Isn't democracy supposed to be about listening to voters?

"It is troubling," said Eli Pariser, executive director of, the liberal Internet-based organization. "We should be living in the golden age of politics -- an age in which every member of Congress can easily have a two-way conversation with his or her most engaged constituents. Instead, we're seeing bunkerization."

"This is a significant threat to digital democracy," agreed Bill Pease, chief technology officer of GetActive Software Inc., a vendor of public policy programs for the Web. "It assumes anyone who participates in any organization's online advocacy campaign is not to be trusted."

And then there's the fundamental question of fairness. "Why do I have to answer math questions in order to be able to speak with my own congressman?" asked Pam Fielding, president of e-Advocates, an Internet and grass-roots advocacy consultant.

Critics have long seen Congress's aversion to e-mail as troubling. "It seems like congressional offices are spending more time 'sealing off the borders' than dealing with the inescapable truth that most people prefer to communicate via e-mail," said Douglas G. Pinkham, president of the Public Affairs Council, a nonprofit group that teaches corporations how to deal with Washington. "It makes me wonder if this is going to deter a lot of average folks from contacting their members of Congress."

Pinkham believes the solution to e-mail overload is for congressmen to add more staffers, not to reduce the number of e-mails they receive.

It's hard to argue with him, except for this: E-mail companies are already well on their way to circumventing the "logic puzzles" and will almost certainly defeat the gimmick soon. "The fact is that the technology firms working in the space will find work-arounds to the problem," Fielding said.

On a single day last week, of the 8,262 times the logic puzzle was viewed in the House, only 1,568 people answered it and moved on to send a message -- a 19 percent success rate. It's unknowable whether this means that computers could not crack the code or whether actual humans were frustrated and gave up (though there were probably a combination of both).

In the meantime, lobbies, on behalf of their citizen advocates, are kicking up a ruckus. "What we've been doing -- and what the [political] right has been doing -- contributes to a more robust democracy and it ought to be welcomed," said Neas of People for the American Way.

Unfortunately, in the House of Representatives, it isn't.

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum writes about the intersection of government and business every other Monday. His e-mail address