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Public Eye



Congressman Hefley, e-mail home! Back in 1993, Colorado Springs Rep. Joel Hefley conducted a constituent survey of sorts. Some eight years later, in the course of an extensive office cleanup, we rediscovered the survey and are still laughing at the questions posed, which were so incomplete and misleading and rife with innuendo as to border on the absurd.

Here are a few. For kicks, we've taken the liberty of completing what could be deemed the obvious end to the questions (listed below in parentheses).

Do you agree with President Clinton that you are not paying enough taxes and should pay more (with all proceeds going directly to the president's personal offshore bank account)?

Do you agree with President Clinton that immigrants who have AIDS/HIV virus should be admitted to the United States (and your daughter forced to have illicit affairs with them)?

Do you agree with President Clinton that we should lift the ban on homosexuals in the military (so they can proposition your son-in-law)?

Some believe that we, as a nation, are making little headway in the fight against drugs. Should we scrap the fight and legalize drugs (so every school-aged child in America can shoot up every day in between classes)?

You get the idea. And guess what? Respondents resoundingly howled 'no' to every one of those questions, as well as queries about whether they are satisfied with the cost of health care and whether they generally favored raising their income tax rates.

That particular questionnaire was conducted just as Hefley -- who was elected in 1986 vowing to limit himself to three terms in office -- was halfway through that third term. But once he got to Washington, he apparently took a shine to it and never left. Eight terms later, Hefley is now the senior member of Colorado's six-member congressional delegation.

He hasn't conducted any more constituent surveys lately, and hasn't held a public town hall meeting in his district in nearly four months. But Hefley -- who was once deemed by the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call one of the most obscure members of Congress -- was the very last member of the U.S. House of Representatives to develop a Web site that allows constituents to review online his biography and official positions.

Hefley's aversion to technology seems odd for a politician whose district is rich in high-tech industry. In fact, according to the American Electronics Association, 65 percent of Colorado Springs households have computers, ranking our city second only to the Silicon Valley stronghold of San Jose.

And, Hefley, who was recently appointed chairman of the subcommittee on military readiness, is one of the few members of the U.S. House of Representatives who still doesn't have e-mail.

In the past, Hefley staffers have always insisted that the volume of e-mails would require them to hire additional staff, which they don't want to do. This week, spokeswoman Sarah Shelden said the discovery of anthrax in congressional offices has not resulted in a revisit of the no-e-mail policy. Hefley, said Shelden, prefers to get his mail the old-fashioned way. And he has a policy of responding to the letters that come in within two weeks of receipt, she said.

It bears noting that Shelden was reporting her boss's policy from a temporary office in the Office of General Accounting, where Hefley's staff has been camped since Congress shut down two weeks ago. At press time, all mail delivery had been halted to members of Congress for nearly two weeks. All telephone calls to the Congressman's D.C. office are being rerouted to Colorado Springs. Shelden isn't sure when they will be able to return to their currently roped-off and inaccessible congressional office.

"It's an enormous inconvenience because we have access to nothing," Shelden said. "We're just trying our best to do what we can."

Of course, there are pitfalls to congressional e-mail, notably the sheer volume of messages that pour in, many of them from lobbying and special interest groups.

According to a report recently conducted by George Washington University, the number of e-mail messages to the House of Representatives rose from 20 million in 1998 to 48 million in 2000, and it continues to grow by an average of 1 million messages per month.

However, the same study cited several members of Congress who have successfully implemented e-mail systems designed to receive constituent feedback while blocking the spam. One of those cited is Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, a conservative Republican from the district neighboring ours, which encompasses Jefferson and Arapahoe counties.

Tancredo, currently the state's freshman member of Congress, was elected in 1998 with a pledge, just like Hefley's, that he would self-limit himself to three terms in office.

Perhaps Hefley should consider seeking a little e-mail advice from his like-minded brother about the importance of communicating -- and governing -- in the 21st century.

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