Public’s Right to Write Inundates Congress With Mail
It is Monday in Sen. Pete Wilson’s office. Several tightly strapped bundles lie split open, their contents spreading across the floor like ocean waves breaking against the beach. Every half hour or so, a door opens and another bundle thuds to the floor.
Three staff members sit at long tables, sorting through waves of correspondence that begin: “Dear Sen. Wilson. . . .” There are 4,000 letters each workday, 20,000 each week.
The California Republican’s office reports that mail is arriving at twice the pace of last year’s 462,134 pieces, with a record 25,703 letters in one recent week, most of them demanding that the senator cut the budget without sacrificing the writers’ pet programs. “Everybody thinks theirs is the only letter,” sighs Rosemary Harris, Wilson’s mail room director, as she stacks letters in a long tray.
Tidal Wave of Mail
Wilson’s office is not the only one inundated by cards and letters bearing the opinions and entreaties of voters, of course. The public this year is sending a tidal wave of mail crashing across all of Capitol Hill that will probably wipe out last year’s high-water mark.
“It’s just the tradition in this country,” explained Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez). “You have a right to write your congressman. You have a right to a response. It’s part of the democratic process.”
Members of Congress hardly ever read their own mail; instead, the cards and letters are pigeonholed according to subject matter. Responses are typically pre-written statements of the member’s position on the issue in question.
Some letter-writers are trying to influence their elected representatives. Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D-Carmel Valley) said: “It’s a counterforce to the high-paid lobbyists who can walk in through the door and have immediate access, for the people who can’t afford that.”
Correspondents Seek Help
Other correspondents are seeking help for their own problems, sometimes involving disputes over federal benefits, sometimes having nothing to do with the federal government. “Every day, my staff is literally saving people’s lives and their fortunes,” said Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.).
But the champions in generating mail are not ordinary individuals but special interest groups, which can turn out thousands and thousands of pre-printed postcards on issues from tax policy to gun control. Most of the mail distributed to Congress is collected by organizations and interest groups and hauled in bulk directly to the House and Senate postmasters for distribution.
Congressional offices are fighting technology with technology--automatic letter-openers, state-of-the-art computers that spew out reams of mail at the touch of a button and automatic pens that reproduce the senator’s or representative’s signature. At least three-quarters of congressional responses are spit out by computers that automatically select and print pre-written letters according to topic.
Wilson’s staff, for example, can use 924 computer responses on subjects ranging from Eagle Scouts to sperm whales. Such mechanization is necessary to “free members up to do things only members can do,” according to the director of the Congressional Management Foundation, a nonprofit group organized to help members of Congress run their offices.
Public Better Organized
Citizens have stepped up the flow of mail to Congress as the government’s reach has extended more deeply into their lives. And the public has become more savvy and better organized, aware that a faraway vote in Congress may mean more federal taxes or less in federal benefits.
From 1972 to 1984, mail to the House increased fourfold, from 50 million pieces to 200 million pieces. That is more than half a million pieces every day, Sundays and holidays included--more than 1,000 pieces a day for each of the 435 offices.
The Senate, where growth has been less spectacular, received 42.5 million items in 1984, up from 32.5 million in 1977. The average senator, like the average House member, receives somewhat more than 1,000 pieces a day.
The offices of most members of Congress devote more than half their staff time and half their office expenses to answering the mail--and generating their own. “It’s the biggest single thing we do,” said Roy Greenaway, Cranston’s top aide. “We could cut our staff in half if we didn’t have to answer mail.”
In public, members of Congress call the mail a crucial if exhausting element of participatory democracy. In fact, however, only rarely--as in 1983, when a flood of letters helped persuade Congress to reverse a law that would have mandated that taxes be withheld from interest income--does the mail influence congressional action.
“It depends on the nature and quality of mail,” said Cranston, who, like most members of Congress, personally reads only the truly extraordinary letters. “It is not a totally accurate barometer. If I have strong feelings and conviction and knowledge about an issue, I’m not going to change it just because of the mail. If not . . . I may be guided.”
Greenaway, his aide, added: “It is not a good indication of what the general public is thinking. It is only a good indication of what people who are writing to the senator are thinking.”
Panetta, arguing that votes in Congress should not depend on the sheer weight of the mail, complained that mass mailing “depersonalizes the whole process.”
If orchestrated mailing campaigns rarely turn around a vote, however, individual letters sometimes spur legislation and raise new issues. “Now and then, a gem of a letter comes in with a new insight, a very provocative slant,” Cranston said.
Sometimes, members of Congress look to the mail to see which way the wind is blowing. Thus, Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, encouraged the public recently to “write Rosty” about tax reform.
The best letters, according to recipients, are detailed, anecdotal and personal. Almost every member of Congress can cite legislation they have sponsored as a result of their best letters--"gold nuggets,” as Miller called them.
Former Rep. Millicent Fenwick (D-N.J.), who sorted through her mail in the early morning and wrote handwritten responses throughout the day, said she could still recall her correspondents’ names, their tales of woe, their “desperate situations.”
“It influenced almost every single piece of legislation I introduced,” said Fenwick, who left Congress in 1982 and is now a U.S. representative to the Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome. “Every single thing I’ve had an idea about comes from people.”