Why Congressional Web Sites Are (Usually) Worthless

It isn’t just Senate ethics rules.

Chatterbox was unaware, until it was reported by Jim Geraghty of States News Service, that an ill-considered ethics rule prevents U.S. senators from updating their Senate Web sites for 60 days prior to re-election. Here’s the language (from Page 499 of the Senate Ethics Manual):

During the 60 day period immediately preceding the date of any primary or general election (whether regular, special, or runoff) for any national, state, or local office in which the Senator is a candidate, no Member may place, update or transmit information using a Senate Internet Server … unless the candidacy of the Senator in such election is uncontested.

What’s more, in September and October during even-numbered years, even senators who are not themselves running have to be careful about updating their Web pages, lest they be accused of helping a colleague get re-elected:

During the 60 day period immediately before the date of a biennial general Federal election, no Member may place or update on the Internet Server any matter on behalf of[italics Chatterbox’s] a Senator who is a candidate for election, unless the candidacy of the Senator in such election is uncontested.

The rule was dreamed up in July 1996, when the Web was still a novelty, and it reflects a poor understanding of how people would come to use the Internet. The logic ran something like this: Because it’s maintained at taxpayer expense, a Senate Web page resembles a congressional mailing; ergo, updating it during the election season would be analogous to abusing the franking privilege. But the franking analogy would apply more properly to a senator who used a taxpayer-funded e-mail account to spam his constituents prior to an election. A Web site doesn’t seek out readers; readers seek out the Web site. That makes it more like an answered letter or a returned phone call. The House recognized this distinction, hence never imposed a similar ban.

But don’t take that to mean that the House is much more Web-savvy than the Senate. Click today on the Web page of a U.S. representative, and you’ll typically find little more information than you’ll find on the gagged Web page of a U.S. senator. That’s because both houses of Congress are reluctant to let information flow through the Internet.

The problem extends even to members of Congress who have a reputation for headline-grabbing. If, for instance, on Oct. 14 you were to go to the Web site of Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., you would find a grand total of 17 press releases from 2002, the most recent issued two weeks earlier. It’s a dead certainty that Rep. Burton has issued many more than 17 press releases this year. Similarly, it just isn’t possible that Rep. David Bonior, D-Mich., has issued only 11 press releases since the start of summer. If members of Congress are this stingy on the Internet with press releases, you don’t have to wonder how reluctant they are to put less self-serving information on the Web. The House Agriculture Committee, for example, won’t post hearing transcripts any sooner than six to eight weeks after the event (and, as of Oct. 14, the most recently posted transcript is from July 18, which was nearly 13 weeks ago). The House Budget Committee’s Web site provides no hearing links at all for 2002; instead, it has a link to a Government Printing Office transcript site that, in turn, links to Budget Committee hearings, though none more recent than July 16. The House Ways and Means Committee would have you believe that it hasn’t issued any reports on taxation since a year ago last April. And in most instances, members’ proposed changes to bills that are about to be voted on can’t be accessed at all.

This is not a new problem. The Nader-affiliated Congressional Accountability Project has been hammering away on this since 1994, and Eve Gerber wrote about the problem in Slate in December 1999. What’s odd is that apart from the Internet, information tends to flow freely in Congress. But that’s mainly because there are too many staffers there, affiliated with too many centers of power, to allow for easy control. A Web page centralizes and makes conspicuous what the source of information is, thereby allowing legislators to exercise tight control. This is no doubt especially true when the legislator isn’t much of an Internet user himself.

The end result of this stinginess is that the democratization of information brought about by the Web is felt least within the realm of democracy, or at least a large segment of it in this country. (The executive and judicial branches do much better.) That citizens deserve quick access to what’s going on in Washington is a sentiment no member of Congress would dispute. But go find a member of Congress who’ll provide that access via the Internet, by far the most efficient venue for doing so.