Washington--When word reached Wilmington, N.C., in May that the U.S. House was to vote to ban many assault weapons, a gun-owning resident of that quiet coastal town decided to protest. So he turned on his computer.
"A nation in which the government owns all the coercive force is a police state," he typed. "We're heading down a dangerous path."
Seconds later, the message flickered onto a computer screen in the Washington office of Rep. Charles Rose III, a Democrat who represents Wilmington. Mr. Rose's staff then fired off an electronic note assuring the cyber-constituent that Mr. Rose would oppose the assault-gun ban.
Nearly 100 more messages were dispatched to Mr. Rose in the days before the vote. And if you believe Mr. Rose, many more political connections will soon be forged this way -- through a network of electronic mail, or e-mail.
Mr. Rose wants to put every member of Congress on-line. As chairman of the House Administration Committee, which oversees congressional office resources, he is one of e-mail's loudest cheerleaders.
"It seems the possibilities are endless," Mr. Rose says. With just a few keystrokes, he points out, far-flung constituents can take part in the political process.
Others wonder whether congressional e-mail is merely a fad, or worse, a taxpayer-funded campaign device. Some call e-mail the next incumbent perk, a mass publicity scheme by politicians, about politicians, for politicians. From their Capitol Hill legislative offices, critics say, incumbents can use e-mail solely for self-promotion, particularly at election time.
"The whole point of this is to [assure] tenure" in Congress, says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "This can only help to further a lawmaker's political agenda."
About 75 congressional and committee offices either have e-mail technology or are awaiting a linkup.
So far, Maryland's congressional delegation has been slow to leap into the interactive age. No Maryland lawmakers can yet be e-mailed directly. But some, such as Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, are interested in eventually putting their offices on-line.
E-mail messages travel via the Internet, a spider's web of computer networks spanning the globe, linking about 20 million people and immense data bases of information.
Unlike a paper letter, e-mail arrives with the touch of a button. Unlike a fax, it provides speedy two-way communication between politicians and constituents. Unlike a long-distance phone call, it allows lengthy discussions without high costs. Unlike a personal meeting, it is faceless and freewheeling, granting access regardless of power or position.
A bridge to voters
Lawmakers praise e-mail as a high-tech antidote to an alienated electorate, a tool to bridge the gap between voters and politicians who are perceived as out of touch with everyday America.
"So many Americans are alienated by the giant, impenetrable bureaucracy of the government," says Rep. Elizabeth Furse, an Oregon Democrat. "I have found that electronic communication helps shorten the distance and break down those communication barriers."
Still, some observers wonder about the political motives behind the trend. E-mail, they note, is not only the shortest path from lawmaker to constituent; it is also the shortest path from politician to voter.
Instead of waiting for word from home, lawmakers are popping up on the personal-computer screens of constituents. Many put their news releases, speech transcripts and floor statements on line.
Mr. Sabato contends that all forms of political outreach -- from a hometown visit to a high-tech message -- can be exploited for personal gain. "It sounds innocent enough, but the real purpose of constituent communication is almost always to shore up the re-election prospects of the incumbents using taxpayer dollars," he says.
That characterization rankles Rep. Richard A. Zimmer, a New Jersey Republican whose office just jumped into the electronic fray.
"I'm not forcing myself on anyone's computer," Mr. Zimmer says. "I'm just making it possible for people to communicate in a mode that's most convenient for them."
Another e-mail devotee, Rep. Maria Cantwell, a Washington state Democrat, says it takes too long for paper letters -- "snail mail" -- to move between Washington and the West Coast. The speed of mail, she says, encourages her constituents to participate in a bureaucracy that could otherwise seem impenetrable.
"What e-mail allows you to do is have a more personal dialogue," says Ms. Cantwell, whose district is home to the software giant Microsoft Corp. "It's kind of like someone walking into your office and saying, 'Hey, I want to talk to you.' "
Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, wants to use e-mail as a polling device. Early this month, she put a health-care questionnaire on-line and asked for electronic responses on proposed reforms. So far, her office has received 430 responses.
For now, most lawmakers are keeping their electronic messages brief and putting most personal responses on paper to ensure privacy. Legislators say their offices will generate more sophisticated messages once they are assured that e-mail is safe from computer snoopers.
E-mail boosters argue that on-line, everyone is equal: Money, rank and power aren't required. Ms. Mikulski is setting up a computer bulletin board to deliver her speeches to the computing public. "It increases access to what the senator's been doing," says Rachel Kunzler, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Democrat. "And you don't have to be in the room at a $50 [a plate] luncheon to do it."
An addictive mix
Politics and technology seem to be an addictive mix. Capitol Hill is already home to a video studio where lawmakers tape cable-TV interviews to air in their districts.
In the private sector, e-mail is still considered the domain of a privileged electronic elite. But that selective au
dience is precisely the kind that politicians most want to reach.
"These people are highly educated, high-news consumers and overwhelmingly predisposed to vote," Mr. Sabato says. A study released last month by the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press found that people who own personal computers read newspapers, watch television news programs and turn on C-SPAN in greater numbers than does the noncomputing public.
For their part, some congressional staffers say the burden of regular mail already is too great, and they worry that an additional electronic load will flatten them. "It's such a pain in the neck," says one House staffer. "I mean, everyone hates mail. I hate e-mail every time I see it. I'm not ready for e-mail."
But in the office of Mr. Zimmer, the New Jersey Republican, reluctant staffers had better bite their tongues. Mr. Zimmer believes that all mail, whether scrawled on paper or flashed on a phosphorescent screen, is critical to re-election.
"Back before I was elected to office, as often as not, if someone was critical of an elected official, it was because he or she didn't answer their mail," Mr. Zimmer says. "It's as important as anything we do here."
Nevertheless, as he prepares to enter cyberspace, Mr. Zimmer envisions many unknowns.
"None of us in the office could predict what the consequences of getting on the Internet will be, and I think we're going to learn about this as it evolves," he says. "But I don't think we'll be sorry."
MARYLAND LAWMAKERS ON E-MAIL
All Maryland congressional offices have internal e-mail on Capitol Hill, and some can send electronic messages to their district offices. But for now, no members of the delegation can send or receive e-mail beyond their offices. Their offices have differing reactions to the e-mail revolution:
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski: By the fall, the office plans to make available a computer bulletin board featuring some of the senator's press releases, speeches and floor statements. "We're going to take the first step and see how it works," says a spokeswoman, Rachel Kunzler. "This is going to be our first step to making our office electronically accessible."
Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes: "We already have E-mail amongst ourselves, and that [constituent e-mail] will happen," says Bruce Frame, a spokesman. "It's another way, not a better way or a worse way, to communicate."
Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest: "We're not ruling it out," says Cathy Collier, a spokeswoman. "Maybe later on at some point, once we get on this information superhighway."
Rep. Helen Delich Bentley: "We're having a hard time working out how we'll download that data into our system," says Wilson Von Kessler, an aide. "We have an old system."
Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin: "None of us has ever said, 'How do we do it?' " says Sean Cavanaugh, an aide. "If people are sending us e-mail messages, they're floating out there in the ether somewhere."
Rep. Albert R. Wynn: "We're trying to figure out the feasibility, since we've been a rather frugal office," says Luis Navarro, an aide.
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer: "I know we're not doing it now," says Jesse Jacobs, a spokesman. Computer skills vary in the office, he says, adding, "I'm lucky I can print a press release, believe me."
Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett: "We'd be open to something like that if it became widely used and proved effective," says Cheri Jacobus, a spokeswoman. But, she says, "We're just now getting used to [internal e-mail] in our own office."
Rep. Kweisi Mfume: "We're always interested in better communications with our constituents," says Dan Willson, a spokesman. "Our district has a large, large amount of people under the poverty level, so what we're interested in is getting more access to the information highway."
Rep. Constance A. Morella: "I just don't think it's something we'll be doing in the immediate future," says Mary Anne Leary, a spokeswoman. "I don't use e-mail myself," she says. "The information superhighway has left me in the dust."