An unseemly 60-day rule
- By Ari Schwartz
- Dec 10, 2000
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
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
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
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
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.