Illustration by Bob AulI am guessing the menu at the House of Representatives' dining room doesn't regularly feature spam. But on Sept. 30, a new press secretary introduced Capitol Hill to a delicacy its constituents get to grapple with every day.
"IF YOU'RE LOOKING TO LOSE WEIGHT PERMANENTLY AND YOU DON'T HAVE TIME TO SEEE [sic] AN EXPERT, HERE'S THE PERFECT OPPORTUNITY. MY FRIEND LOSS [sic] 40 LBS. READ THIS!" Cher Castillo, an aide to Congressman Alcee Hastings (D-Florida), typed into an e-mail message. And then she hit "send."
The message—a fairly typical spam touting the weight-loss pill "phentermine"—made its way over the House's internal e-mail system to thousands of Capitol Hill staffers. Irate recipients promptly responded, many using the "Reply to All" option, which sent out thousands more messages all over the House and Senate. Computers began slowing down. E-mail systems clogged up. Lunch reminders, committee scheduling changes, requests for information—everything stalled.
"I think everybody got affected by it on the House side," said Spencer Freebairn, press secretary to Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach). "I didn't get e-mails that were sent to me on Friday until the following Monday. There were just a bazillion e-mails going through. It really slowed things down."
Making matters worse, Steve Maviglio, chief of staff to Congressman Rush Holt, took advantage of the opportunity to lecture the Hill on the evils of spam (unsolicited, mass e-mails) and urge recipients to support his boss's anti-spam bill.
"How would you like to receive thousands of these each day???" he wrote. "Our constituents do—costing them money and invading their privacy. Stop Spam!!!! Co-sponsor the Anti-Spam Act of 1999 sponsored by Representative Rush Holt (D-New Jersey) and Representative Gary Miller (R-California)."
And then he hit Reply to All.
Maviglio's in-box soon filled up with hundreds of responses, some accusing him of orchestrating the entire shindig to drum up support for the Miller bill. Others, according to Wired News, were more succinct: "Die."
Meanwhile, the House Ways and Means Committee didn't get its e-mail for 18 hours. Other staffers' computers, overburdened by the complaints and flames zinging their way across the Hill, crashed repeatedly. House Information Resources sent out its own message instructing recipients to stop responding to the e-mails, and for God's sake, stop clicking on Reply to All! According to Roll Call, which broke the all-important spam story, Castillo was informed that if she repeated the stunt, she would be dismissed. It was a grand, glorious 32-car pile-up, technologically speaking. And those of us who have to deal with spam every day can be forgiven, I think, for laughing our asses off.
Freebairn said that while internal spam was a new phenomenon for the House, Rohrabacher's office gets probably a dozen spams a week through the usual channels: the weight-loss schemes, the get-rich-quick schemes, the make-a-million-dollars-through-spamming schemes. Of course, protected as he is by a thick, insulating layer of aides, Rohrabacher most likely never has to read them. Or delete them from his mailbox. Or hunt through the headers to see if there's some actual mail hiding among the capital letters and exclamation marks.
I'm not picking on Rohrabacher here—most representatives are equally well-padded. But they finally got a taste of what it's like for the rest of us.
In May, the Spam Recycling Center (www.spamrecycle.com) opened its doors online and invited folks to send in their spam. They got 80,000 messages in the first month—a small indication of just how huge the problem is. In July, they presented 198,601 spams to Congress: pornographic solicitations, pyramid schemes—all the detritus that clutters our e-mail boxes every day—as part of an effort to drum up support for Miller and Holt's anti-spam bill.
The bill has since stalled in the Commerce Committee while Congress holds its annual appropriations slug fest. But Miller's press secretary, John Cusey, said the recent bout of spam indigestion on the Hill has led to renewed interest in the bill.
"We've picked up at least one co-sponsor, and a lot of offices were asking for more information on the issue," he said. "It definitely drew the attention of staff and members that this is what happens to their constituents."
However, for some members of the OC delegation, it's going to take more than a computer meltdown to change their minds. Freebairn said Rohrabacher was willing to look at the bill but was reluctant to act too quickly. "Nobody likes spam, but we want to make sure the fix isn't worse than the problem," he said. "Any regulation of the Internet could bring in more problems than what's currently out there." Indeed, First Amendment questions have been raised amid calls to regulate spam.
Bryan Wilkes, press secretary for Congressman Ed Royce (R-Fullerton), said his boss was "all gangbusters" about the Miller bill, even though their office really didn't suffer from the recent spam contretemps. "We didn't even know about it till after the fact," he said. "Then we thought, 'Wow, how did we miss that bullet?'
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"Not only does he support the bill, but as of today [Oct. 6], he's also a co-sponsor of it," Wilkes added. "We hadn't seen anything on it, but the recent stories brought it to the staff's attention. We showed it to him, and he pretty much said, 'Damn good idea.'"
Meanwhile, life on the Hill has apparently returned to normal—as normal as it gets in D.C. E-mail once again flows smoothly. Miller's bill languishes in committee while the members throw chairs at one another over the budget. And staffers for the OC delegation can go back to sorting through messages from constituents, secure in the knowledge that their internal computer network is spam-free.
"Of course, we got a systemwide voice mail recently saying, 'Beware, the Melissa virus is back, and it's on the Hill,'" said Wilkes. "You sort of wonder what's next—locusts?"
For more information about spam-fighting efforts, check out the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-mail (www.cauce.org). E-mail Wyn (no spam, damn it!) at firstname.lastname@example.org. And visit our Web site at www.ocweekly.com.