An unseemly 60-day rule

During this past election season, we were reminded of the ludicrous rule

preventing senators from updating their official Web sites within the 60

days before an election. The rule was written to stop candidates from using

their sites for campaigning, but instead it highlights the U.S. Senate Rules

and Administration Committee's limited view of the Internet and its interactive

functions.

All candidates are forced to post a note in early September stating:

"Pursuant to Senate policy, this home page may not be updated for the 60-day

period immediately before the date of a primary or general election."

When I first heard about this four years ago, I wondered why the committee

focused on the technology and not the purposes for which it is used.

Actually, the rules do that, too — use of the Senate's servers for "personal,

promotional, commercial or partisan political/ campaign purposes is prohibited."

Therefore, it seems that the Senate views the Web only for self-promotion

rather than ongoing and interactive communication between elected officials

and constituents.

The World Wide Web — as its creator, Tim Berners-Lee, often reminds

us — was designed as a truly interactive technology. It enables individuals

to read, comment and participate within a decentralized structure. This

vision seems especially desirable in cultivating relationships between constituents

and representatives.

It is true that most Senate Web sites have been used only for self-promotion

purposes, with little interaction. Yet, we will never reach the desired

goal with an attitude that perpetuates the 60-day rule. Imagine if the panel

put forward a rule forbidding senators and staff members from using Senate

phones within 60 days of an election for fear of campaigning.

Some may think that the 60-day rule is simply an oversight or an approach

that came out of apprehensions about the Web in its early days. Unfortunately,

it is part of a pattern.

For example, the Senate Web site has no searchable database of Senate

votes. Instead, visitors are given a table of each vote listed as follows:

"18-Jul, H.R.4810, Amendment Agreed to, Lott Amdt., No. 3881." This description

may make sense to policy analysts in Washington, but to most Americans,

it is gibberish. Placing the votes in a database would lead to a better

understanding of how the Senate functions and better accountability for

individual senators.

A more egregious case is the committee's complete inaction on the Congressional

Openness Act introduced by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.)

and others. The bill would have, among other things, made Congressional

Research Service reports available to the public online.

The committee received the bill at the very beginning of the 106th Congress — yet it never even held a hearing on the subject, despite the bill's bipartisan

support and calls from the public demanding action.

I hope that next year's Senate Rules and Administration Committee will

take a new view of the Internet: one of interactivity rather than disdain.

Schwartz is a policy analyst at the Center for Democracy and Technology

in Washington, D.C.

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