Net Election

How Congress Resists the Web

Slate and the Industry Standard join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000.

The simplest way the Internet can enhance democracy is by making buried information easily available to citizens. By putting documents of all kinds online, agencies let in disinfecting sunlight and make themselves accountable to the public. By and large, the federal government has made impressive strides toward making itself Web-accessible. But there’s one big exception: the U.S. Congress.

Congress is ostensibly fascinated with cyberspace. Fifty Web-related bills and resolutions are pending on Capitol Hill. Over 100 members of Congress participate in an Internet caucus. Yet, when it comes to posting basic information about its inner workings, Congress has been shamefully slow. The result is that it protects the privileged status of corporate lobbyists and insulates back-room deals from public scrutiny while fencing out concerned and engaged citizens.

Let’s say you want to find out something about the latest draft of a bill. You might try the home pages of the House and Senate, which link to Capitol Hill tourism tips and member home pages. But these sites provide scattershot coverage of legislation revisions. Nor are the pages of the legislation’s sponsors likely to help. Most of these are filled with promotional dross. Biographical information, press releases, and lengthy legislative accomplishment lists are complemented by intern solicitations and flag request forms. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., includes his recipe for Chocolate Nut Pie.

You may get closer to what you’re looking for at GPO Access, a Government Printing Office site where citizens can download legislation and search Congressional Record archives. The clumsy and confusing THOMAS–a Library of Congress site–duplicates some of this information. It contains bills, roll-call votes, and links to congressional committee sites. But neither of these sites gives you the up-to-date information that might enable you to understand how a bill is working its way through the legislative process.

“There is much more information online about Congress than at any time in history,” according to Jason Poblete, a spokesman for the House Administration Committee. That is undoubtedly true, but it’s hardly a meaningful statement. There is far less information about Congress online than there should and easily could be. Here is what’s missing and why:

Working Drafts of Bills and Amendments. Citizens can access bills, but working drafts are rarely posted. That’s because under current policy, THOMAS cannot post an update until the text is processed by the Government Printing Office. The delay guarantees that lobbyists have time to get drafts and influence the process before the general public knows what’s happening. Adam Thierer, Internet policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation, says that “the messy nature of the legislative process makes it difficult to keep a site up to date.” But Gary Ruskin of the Congressional Accountability Project, a Ralph Nader-related organization that watches Congress, asserts that committee chairmen squelch the posting of drafts because, “If citizens figured out what was in some of these bills, there would be public outcry against them.”

Hearing Transcripts and Statements. To find out about congressional hearings, the curious must locate the appropriate committee site. Some committees post opening remarks and transcripts, but the coverage is scattershot. THOMAS publishes hearing testimony, but it often takes months before the transcripts are “processed.” While the public waits, lobbyists purchase uncorrected transcripts from pricey transcription agencies. Poblete counsels patience and claims that all committees will offer video archives of hearings someday. In the meantime, Congress could make all its committees’ hearings available with the help of a few $200 scanners.

Congressional Research Service Reports. Congress spends over $64 million a year on a research service that analyzes thousands of issues, from abortion to Zambia. The reports, which are often excellent, are public documents that the public can’t easily get its hands on. Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D.,  posts several hundred CRS reports on his site, and members give them away in response to specific constituent requests. Still, citizens often have to wait weeks for research that a congressional staffer can download in seconds. As a result, commercial services are able to make money selling bootleg copies. Penny Hill Press, for instance, peddles CRS reports for $49 per order. Why not put these guys out of business? Ruskin contends that Congress hoards the reports because “members see CRS as their own fiefdom and they like the ability to give reports as a favor to constituents.” A congressional task force is “considering” making all CRS reports public. It is supposed to report its conclusions by the end of the year.

Voting Records. To find out how a member voted on a particular bill, citizens must comb through archives of roll-call votes, which are categorized by bill number and searchable by topic. Constituents can’t search by representative name, at least at any official government site. Ruskin argues that “easily searchable voting records are essential to democratic accountability.” Poblete says Congress is considering how to make voting records easier to access.

Lobbyist Disclosure Reports. These reports detail how much lobbyists are paid to work on a particular issue and in theory what, who, and how they lobby. They can make for very interesting reading, but to get them you have to go in person to a little office in the Capitol. Ruskin argues that posting the reports would allow citizens to trace patterns of influence. Citizens are not able to access these reports online, even though they are electronically stored. Poblete claims that the reports will be posted as soon as Congress resolves “technical hurdles.”

House, Senate, and Personal Financial Disclosure Reports. Members must report how they spend their “representational allowances” and have to file personal financial disclosure reports. The disclosures can be used to ferret out wrongdoing and conflicts of interest. The data are computerized, but for “policy reasons” the reports are not available online. Congress is “reconsidering” whether to post them, according to Poblete.

Five years ago, Speaker-elect Newt Gingrich promised to make important information available online “at the same moment that it is available to the highest-paid Washington lobbyist.” That did happen, but only once–when Congress instantaneously published the Starr Report. When it comes to its own dirty laundry, there seems to be no such hurry.