Congress increasingly does business via Web

Last month, at the height of the debate over a proposed constitutional amendment to limit House and Senate members' terms in office, supporter Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.) devoted his home page to the subject. More than 30,000 visitors to his Web site were encouraged to register their opinions on the measure, to electronically mail their own senators and to check out related sites.

The bill was defeated, but Ashcroft believes his use of the Web will help prove to his colleagues that they too should use the Internet to expand public access to Congress. "Tens and tens of thousands of people contacted this home page, and a number have clicked from our home page to [other] Senate offices," Ashcroft said. "I think that is the stuff of which citizen participation is made."

Veteran "Netizens" might not be impressed by Ashcroft's application of Web technology: On-line surveys are becoming commonplace, and numerous Internet sites offer information about hot political news. But Kimberly Jenkins, executive director of Highway 1, a computer industry group that promotes public access to government through technology, said Ashcroft and other Net-savvy lawmakers are demonstrating how the Internet can help them with their work.

"I think it will become...assumed that members of Congress are going to use this as a method to reach their citizens," she said. "Eventually it will have the same impact as mail has."

Interviews with lawmakers and their staffs suggest, however, that both the House and Senate have a way to go before the Internet becomes a standard means of exchanging information with the public. "It's a learning curve," said Connie Correll, press secretary to Rep. Rick White (R-Wash.). White is a founder of the Internet Caucus, a bipartisan group that is trying to encourage legislators to go on-line.

"Congress does not have the equipment that a Microsoft or other high-tech company would have, [and] there are a number of members who don't use computers, who are older and have not had technology available [to them] and don't use it as often," Correll said. She said White is personally demonstrating the Internet to his colleagues to convince them of its uses.

Jack Sparks, a spokesman for Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio), said his boss was able to launch a home page with the help of Cleveland State University last December, after his office finally had its computers upgraded to the Windows operating system. But Glenn's Washington office still has not obtained its own Internet access, so "it's hard to get documents up there quickly," Sparks said.

New Tech Needs New Rules

Both the House and Senate, meanwhile, are wrestling with new policies needed to ensure that electronic communications conform to congressional ethics rules, that technologies are in place to maintain secure transmissions and that constituents have ready access to networked information.

For example, Correll said, the House has just begun to pilot systems that will let lawmakers respond electronically to e-mail from the public. And Ashcroft found that the Senate Computing Center's network maintenance schedule initially conflicted with the early-evening period when his staff thought most constituents would connect to his Web page.

"I think, as skills improve and use and understanding of the Net improves, [Web pages] will go beyond the standard `here's a picture of me behind my desk with a flag,' " said one Hill aide who has developed Internet applications for legislators.

Among the 63 senators and 127 House members who have home pages, there is a wide variety in the information available. Many sites, largely those in the Senate, have only a small amount of information—a picture, a short biography, a list of committee assignments and perhaps links to press releases, speeches or copies of bills.

But like Ashcroft, a few House and Senate members have attempted to use their Web pages to encourage political participation by actively promoting legislative issues. House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) and Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) have co-sponsored a Web page devoted to the "flat tax" income tax plan. Among the Democrats, Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) has reserved parts of his Web site to advocate two measures he sponsored related to infant health and the environment, and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) is using her home page to survey constituents about their experiences with job training programs.

For Web enthusiasts, such applications demonstrate the potential of the Internet for legislators to get their message across in more detail. Jonathan Ferry, communications director for U.S. Term Limits, said hits to his pro-term limits group's Web page—with information about the history and philosophy behind the proposal—multiplied when Ashcroft included its link on his home page.

An FCW Web search uncovered little information from groups opposed to the idea. Next time, though, "they will have their own area," Ferry said. "I think it would be used more and more for many different issues."

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