E-mail replying to all can be a bad idea

Congressional staffers have found that it is risky to use the reply-all option on their e-mail programs to air grievances over the tone and substance of “Dear Colleague” letters. When you write to scores of recipients, the chance that someone will take offense is high.

Dear Colleague letters, usually hard-hitting and attention-grabbing one-page briefs, are used to gain publicity and to persuade lawmakers to attach their names to a cause, or to argue for or against legislation. They have been circulating a long time, since the start of the 20th century, and have become a daily part of congressional life because of technological advances such as the autopen, automatic typewriters and e-mail.

Letters have proliferated, too, according to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), because of a 1979 change in the House rules that allowed an unlimited number of members to co-sponsor a bill.

Two letters sent this month outraged congressional staffers.

Calling a Republican amendment to the Head Start reauthorization bill a “poison pill,” Reps. John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Chet Edwards (D-Texas) asked lawmakers last week to oppose the amendment, which would have allowed faith-based organizations that receive Head Start money to hire employees of a specific religion.

Dingell and Edwards sought to characterize the proposed amendment, which passed the House last week, as discriminatory. The letter’s headline read, “Catholics and Baptists Only — Others Need Not Apply.”

That’s when Dennis Curry, a State Department Foreign Service officer working as a fellow for the House International Relations Africa Subcommittee, hit the reply-all key.

“I deeply resent having my religion singled out, and old and new prejudices whipped up, as a means to defeat an amendment you oppose,” he said, adding, “This is vile.”

There was no real upshot to Curry’s response. He traded several e-mails with two staffers, one of whom sent the original letter. After going back and forth several times, Curry said, he gave up.

But other reply-all missives raise hackles. A Dear Colleague letter triggered an e-mail spat two weeks ago when Jim Mathews, legislative director to Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), replied to a letter asking lawmakers to support the Captive Primate Safety Act, which would ban the sale of non-human primates.

“Does this deal with those kids out in Ohio who were being kept in cages?” Mathews wrote, referring to the Ohio parents whom authorities were investigating because they allegedly made some of their 11 children sleep in cages.

But Stephanie Moore, a lawyer on the House Judiciary Committee’s Democratic staff, did not see the humor in Mathews’s note.

“Jim, I don’t know you, but I for one don’t equate disabled, black kids with ‘non-human primates for the pet trade.’ Certainly you don’t think that blacks are akin to ‘monkeys, great apes (including chimpanzees and orangutans), marmosets, and/or lemurs?’ I thought I’d just attach the article below reporting on this horribly, sad story for all on your distribution list who were subjected to your insulting and callous attempt at humor!”

Moore demanded an apology from Mathews and attached an Associated Press story that reported that the foster parents were white and the 11 children were black. Early reports did not mention their race.

Mathews says he did not know the 11 children in Ohio were black, and he apologized by e-mail and offered to talk with Moore, said Sherman spokesman Michael Briggs. Mathews did not hear back from Moore.

Moore did not respond to The Hill’s questions about her e-mail to Mathews.

Some congressional offices have no policy about replying to widely distributed e-mails, but aides heaped scorn on those who do so. “When did ‘reply all’ turn into instant slam soapbox? This is out of control,” a House Democratic aide said.

“It’s dumb as hell. Dumb, dumb, dumb,” a senior GOP leadership aide said.

A senior House Democratic aide added, “I think it’s safe to say that the staffers, some of whom repeatedly engage in the reply-all stupidity, are either complete morons, self-righteous, grandstanding or all of the above. They’re usually staff from the Bipartisan Obscure Caucus trying to make a name for themselves.”

While Dear Colleague letters often read like direct-mail campaign pieces, many are perfunctory, informing lawmakers about housekeeping issues, the 2005 CRS report said.

Jim Thurber, a congressional scholar at American University, said using e-mail to communicate has increased the chance to make mistakes in writing the letters and in responding to them.

“E-mail is a new medium and more efficient, and presents situations where you can’t take time to reflect and so you make mistakes,” he said. “It’s a way to get reactions and mobilization very widely and quickly and without a lot of thought.”

It’s that sentiment that bothered Curry, a Catholic. “They’re singling out both religions as bogeymen,” he said, adding that he could see arguments for both sides of the issue. A spokesman for Dingell declined to comment.

A Democratic press secretary said, “I dream of a day you can have the option of removing the reply-all option from the Outlook [e-mail program] toolbar.”