A brief history of Congress and email

A brief history of Congress and email
© Greg Nash

Most members of Congress have had email access going back to the mid-1990s, but some lawmakers have failed to make much of it.

Electronic communication in the House and Senate dates back decades to the use of connected computer networks confined to a small area, such as a Senate office, known as local area networks (LANs). Those evolved into networks connecting multiple offices in Congress or lawmakers' state offices and eventually morphed into current-day Internet connections and email systems.

The ubiquity of the technology today left some on social media perplexed when Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGraham says Trump should be allowed to undo DACA order The Hill's 12:30 Report: Dems, GOP dig in for public impeachment hearings The Hill's Morning Report - Witness transcripts plow ground for public impeachment testimony MORE (R-S.C.) revealed over the weekend he had never sent an email. Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainSteve Schmidt: 'Overwhelming chance that Trump will dump Pence' for Haley Lindsey Graham basks in the impeachment spotlight Sanders proposes expanded Veterans Affairs services, B to rebuild infrastructure MORE (R-Ariz.) said the same earlier this month. 

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With email dominating headlines via the controversy over Hillary Clinton's use of a personal account while at the State Department, here are five things to know about the history of congressional email. The information comes from resources provided by the Senate Historical Office.  

 

GRAHAM IS NOT ALONE

A number of senators have spurned the use of email in favor of face-to-face interaction. Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) each told The New York Times they either rarely or never use email. 

"The next president of the United States needs to be good with people, not just technology. And I think I’m good with people," Graham told Bloomberg News in follow-up questions about his failure to use the technology.

McCain does not use it, because he is concerned about saying the wrong thing: "I'm afraid that, if I was emailing, given my solid, always-calm temperament, that I might email something that I might regret,” he said wryly.

 

PILOT PROGRAM 

In June 1993, the House set up an email pilot program to give seven members of Congress the ability to communicate with their constituents through email. The initial program required that constituents send in a postcard through the traditional mail system to request permission to email their representative. The first seven members in the program were then-Reps. Jay Dickey (R-Ark.), Sam Gejdenson (D-Conn.), Newt GingrichNewton (Newt) Leroy GingrichMORE (R-Ga.) George Miller (D-Calif.), Charlie Rose (D-N.C.), Peter Stark (D-Calif.) and Mel Watt (D-Calif.).

 

ANTICIPATING EMAIL BOMBS 

The clunky process of sending an actual piece of mail before getting permission to send an email was meant to weed out nonconstituents and was later retired. In his book The Hill on the Net, author Chris Casey noted that the first system did not route emails directly to lawmakers, because of the worry that interest groups would flood offices with email campaigns — a regular occurrence today. 

"It was a system developed by members and staff who were accustomed to seeing their mail rooms buried under the weight of mass-mailing campaigns and their fax machines running day and night receiving the public's input, and had every expectation the public email would invite an unmanageable new influx of the same," Casey wrote in his 1996 book. 

 

CONNECTING HALF OF CONGRESS 

By August 1995, more than half of all senators had email addresses constituents could use, according to The Hill on the Net. By early 1996, 175 members of the House also had email addresses. According to a 1995 Newsweek poll, only 13 percent of the public said they had ever gone online at that point. 

In the early stages, it was difficult for the public to know which lawmakers had an email address. To help, the House set up an auto response that would send a list of all participating House members when the public sent a message to congress@hr.house.gov. Emails to that address bounce back today.  

 

HAVING AND USING EMAIL IS NOT THE SAME THING

Former Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) is credited as the first senator to have a website. But Casey, Kennedy's systems administrator, said the first senator to set up an email address might have been former Sen. Chuck Robb (D-Va.), followed by Kennedy and former Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.). 

But while Kennedy's office was a pioneer in connecting Congress, his former aide Jim Manley said the senator could not use a BlackBerry "if his life depended on it," according to the Times.

This story was updated at 2:30 p.m.