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Congress Avoiding the Masses' Email

While some members of Congress are trying to cut pork out of the Congressional diet, other members are concerned about interest group spam (known to some as constituent e-mail). New web technology enables members of Congress to require the completion of a simple math or logic problem (examples include what is 5 minus 1, or 3 x 1) before constituents can e-mail them. The optional enhancement to "Write your Rep" is designed to thwart mass e-mails and ensure that only an actual person can complete the puzzle. In some cases, like Sen. John Cornyn's (R-TX) contact page, constituents are asked to choose the nth word out of both politically-charged or nonsensical words like xenophobic, snootiness, canonizing, secretions, skidooed, markups, and snafus.

Common Cause described the new technology as "blocking communication from the people who vote [Congressional members] into office." The ACLU agreed and denounced the use of "logic puzzles." According to the Washington Post, of the 8,262 times the logic puzzle was viewed in the House, only 1,568 people solved the puzzle correctly and moved on to send a message, which could mean that the computer could not crack the code or humans were frustrated and gave up. The Post's Jeffrey Birnbaum (in what is arguably abusive hyperbole) compared the measure to poll taxes once used to prevent blacks from voting.

Approximately 60 offices have already added the feature to their websites. That number may decrease: Rep. John Dingell (D-MI)'s office is reportedly taking it down, saying the technology does not fit the office's needs.

Anyone with an e-mail account can sympathize with Congress members' desire to reduce spam. Unfortunately, the fundamental problem may be lawmakers' general resistance to constituent input in e-mail form. The new web feature also risks being challenged by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Many advocacy groups provide form letters (like this) through their websites that would be filtered out, if sent directly through the website. Whether a member of Congress considers the letter "spam" is beyond the point--constituents have the constitutional right "to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

By: Mandy Smithberger
investigator, POGO

At the time of publication, Mandy Smithberger was an investigator for the Project On Government Oversight, focusing on Department of the Interior oversight, including oil and gas royalties. Mandy also covered national security.

Authors: Mandy Smithberger

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