WASHINGTON, D.C. – Congress is finally entering the 21st Century, whether it likes it or not.
Beginning this week, anyone can directly e-mail their members of Congress if they would like to submit a complaint, opinion or even just to see if someone responds.
If you’re wondering why this is just happening now, more than 20 years since electronic message-sending services became commercially available, it’s because members of the legislative branch didn’t want e-mail addresses—at least publicly available ones.
Congressional offices shy away from offering the public direct e-mail information, and instead typically direct commenters to e-mail forms buried on their member’s website.
It’s all in an effort to streamline messages from hundreds of constituents and vet their comments. But that’s made it hard for the public to reach their representatives without diving into their often robust webpages.
The Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan nonprofit that advocates for open government, sought to change that. Joining up with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit that fights for civil liberties in the digital age, the two groups created a new ‘e-mail your congressman’ feature that directly sends any messages e-mailed through the complicated forums to the politicians you are trying to reach.
“Sometimes these forms break; sometimes their requirements improperly lock out actual constituents. And they always make it harder to email your congressional delegation than it should be,” director of Sunlight Labs Tom Lee said a statement, “This is a real problem. According to the Congressional Management Foundation, 88 percent of Capitol Hill staffers agree that electronic messages from constituents influence their bosses’ decisions. We think that it’s inappropriate to erect technical barriers around such an essential democratic mechanism.”
According to Lee, Congress is working to address the e-mail problem itself, but that process is going too slow, which is why Sunlight set up e-mails for them.
A network of 150 volunteers collected the data from each member of Congress’s website and compiled it on Github, making it available to anyone who wants to build the next generation of constituent communication tools.
With that information in hand, the two groups added an e-mail option on each legislator’s page on OpenCongress.org. There you’ll see an e-mail address in the right-hand sidebar that looks like Sen.Reid@opencongress.org or Rep.Boehner@opencongress.org. You can also e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to e-mail both of your senators and your House representatives at once.
But the e-mail system couldn’t address all of the criticisms that surround congressional communication. The biggest being that members only look at mail from constituents in their own district. So if you’re a concerned citizen but you’re from the town over, your e-mail, or mail, will probably never be opened.
“A lot of people dislike this. We do, too,” said Lee. “In an age of increasing polarization, party discipline means that congressional leaders must be accountable to citizens outside their districts. But the unfortunate truth is that Congress typically won’t bother reading messages from non-constituents.”
“Until that changes,” he adds, “we don’t want our users to waste their time.”