Starr report prompts call for more Web info

As Americans continue to log onto legislative World Wide Web sites that carry Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's report on President Clinton, an activist group has reasserted its call for Congress to put more legislative information on the Web.

Consumer advocate Ralph Nader's Congressional Accountability Project (CAP) has used the release of the graphic Starr report to argue that documents more germane to Congress' primary business of making laws should be posted on congressional Web sites, such as THOMAS, the legislative-information site managed by the Library of Congress. THOMAS, the Government Printing Office and various House Web sites have served as homes to the Starr report.

"Speaker [of the House Newt] Gingrich puts the Starr report on the Internet but keeps off the Internet the most important congressional documents," Nader said earlier this month. "Gingrich shouldn't hide the most important congressional documents from the American people."

Officials with the CAP want Congress to put online a searchable database of congressional voting records, draft committee and conference reports, texts of committee mark-ups and amendments, congressional office expenditure reports and Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports.

Andrew Weinstein, a spokesman for Gingrich, described the posting of the Starr report as a testament that an "information Congress" is emerging. Posting the Starr report "was a tremendous example of how the Internet could be used to give tens of millions of Americans access instantly to the most important documents in our government," he said.

CAP leaders, however, said the graphic details of sexual encounters in the report turned the document into something less than a legitimate official record worthy of inclusion on government Web sites. "If the Starr report didn't have so much inappropriate material in it, I would answer yes" to the question of whether posting the report was a good example of Congress using the Web, said CAP director Gary Ruskin. But Ruskin said the report is not a good example of Congress' use of the Internet because the report contained inappropriate "private material" and was not "level-headed."

Ruskin, however, wants Congress to post on the Web the working documents and drafts that congressmen use to craft laws. "The most important drafts— which are the ones the lobbyists walk around with when they're trying to make something happen on the Hill— those rarely go in the Internet," Ruskin said. "That provides a huge political advantage to corporate lobbyists."

But making such information public is not as easy as it sounds. "The draft changes a hundred times every minute," said a staff member in a House leadership office. "That is not conducive to being put on the Internet.... Logistically, it's totally impossible."

As for online voting records, Weinstein said those records are already available on THOMAS, but Ruskin said the records are not in an "easily searchable database."

John Hibbing, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and author of Congress as Public Enemy: Public Attitudes Toward Political Institutions, said posting the Starr report was not necessarily informative and believes not all information should be posted on Web sites. "I don't really like the trend of giving the people everything and letting them decide," he said. "I'm a big believer in representative democracy.... I'm sorry that the Starr report was handled in this manner."

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