Parties clash over Web-links policy

Old-fashioned politics clashed with new technology on Capitol Hill last week as House Democrats challenged their Republican colleagues to overturn a new policy restricting World Wide Web links.

At issue is a rule, approved by the House Oversight Committee in late May, that allows House committee members of the minority party (now the Democrats) to have links to their Web pages only from the Web pages controlled by the majority members (the GOP). If a committee chairman decided his or her panel would not have a Web page, then the minority party could not have one either.

Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Calif.) and other Democrats contend the policy would, at best, hinder public access to congressional information and, at worst, censor minority views. An attempt Wednesday by Fazio to repeal the rule could lead to a House floor vote on the issue later this month, unless party leaders can work out a compromise

"It is not an issue of being a Republican or a Democrat," Fazio told the House Appropriations Committee, where he raised the issue, but an issue of members' desire to give voters "direct access" to information. Democrats also charge the GOP with working to code their Web page hyperlinks so that visitors cannot set bookmarks for those linked sites.

The House Oversight Committee refused requests for comment last week. In earlier news reports, panel chairman Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) and his staff have been quoted as saying that the policy is not intended to restrict content but to make clear that committee Web pages, like all other committee resources, are controlled by their respective chairmen.

Democrats are clearly irked that users will have to take the extra step of linking to the GOP sites before finding their Web pages.

"It is absurd to think you should have to page through 1,000 pages of majority information in order to get to the minority," said Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.).

But Gary Ruskin, director with the Congressional Accountability Project, said the more important issue is that the move could limit how much information from Congress is available on-line.

"It's a bad rule," he said, because there are few options aside from committee Web pages right now for voters to get committee reports, voting records, drafts of bills or other key documents.

"It's not difficult to imagine a situation where the committee chair says, 'No, the documents don't go up on the Internet,' " he added. "If the minority wants to put the documents out, because there's no majority Web page, the minority wouldn't have the ability to put it on the Web page, and that is the problem."

Some Republicans, at least, appear to be sympathetic to the opposition.

"The minority has raised a substantive matter that should be addressed," said Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, where Fazio raised the issue. "I can't say that, of the substance of the debate that I heard, that I disagree with anything that's been said."

If House leaders cannot resolve the dispute, Livingston said he would support Fazio in seeking a vote on the policy when the spending bill for the legislative branch comes to the floor later this month.

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