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Inbox / Charles Bermant
E-mailing lawmakers: It's possible, but clunky

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While our elected officials discuss the best way to protect us from spam, it's good to know that each and every federal representative has an easy e-mail channel that allows you to weigh in on the subject.

Spammers also may like to take the same opportunity to bombard them with messages. This doesn't seem especially bright, since most public servants tasting these wares will be motivated to take some action. But no one yelling "hey smartie!" in a crowded room ever got spammers to turn their heads.

There is reason to believe that much of the U.S. Congress has limited firsthand experience with spam. Not all representatives publish an actual e-mail address on their site, instead they use a Web form that requires you to fill out several boxes before sending a message.

While this has the effect of discouraging spammers and virus criminals, it also manages to filter out all those who are not from the representative's own district. In plain terms, you won't get an answer from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton unless you enter New York in the state box.

I learned this the hard way when I attempted to contact Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., with a small problem. Not mine, his. While touring his Web site I noticed the following sentence: "A major issue now weighing on the minds of many New Mexican's is the on-going litigation on the middle Rio Grande involving the silvery minnow."

This bothered me because "New Mexicans" should be a plural and not a possessive. I wrote a quick note, but it spat back when the machine noticed that I failed to make a selection in the salutation box. Not only that, it erased my message.

A few weeks later I visited again, and found the grammatical crime still existed. I sent off a note, careful to check "Mr." but received no reply. Not only that, the error still stands. So while it's important for all our representatives to stay focused, it might make sense to get someone to read the mail that comes from out of town.

Our own Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., emerged as the first senator to be elected from the high-tech sector, and has set an example for her colleagues (beyond being busted for bringing her BlackBerry onto the Senate floor). Press secretary Charla Neuman says Cantwell is one of the first senators to answer e-mail inquiries with e-mail. This seems rather obvious, but many members of Congress persist in answering an e-mail message with a snail-mail letter. And you know who really pays for the stamps.

Beyond the superficial, Neuman provides some suggestions for getting her boss's attention, aside from "be from Washington:" Be succinct. Address one topic in each message. And include any personal anecdotal experience that supports your point.

Several times, Cantwell's constituents have sent her a heartfelt note and found themselves a part of the congressional record.

So writing your representative follows a lot of the same rules that govern successful correspondence in the real world. Sincerity works and stupidity fails. Don't waste their time. But if you have something smart to say, there is a way you can snag their attention.

(To influence policy, go to or and locate your representative. Commitment to e-mail and ease of communication varies between offices.)

If you have questions or suggestions for Charles Bermant, you can contact him by e-mail at Type Inbox in the subject field. More columns at

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