Bill opens access to Senate data

Senate documents including bills, meeting transcripts, lobbyist disclosure forms, gift receipts and Congressional Research Service reports would have to be posted on the Internet under legislation being drafted by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).

The bill, called the Congressional Openness Act, is expected to be introduced early next week. McCain and Leahy promoted similar legislation in 1998 and 1999, only to see it die in the Senate Rules Committee.

Virtually all of the information the bill would put on the Internet is available to the public already, but some of it can be obtained only by making a trip to obscure offices in the U.S. Capitol.

McCain contends that making the information available over the Internet would promote openness and help overcome public cynicism about Congress.

During his 1998 effort to put more information on the Internet, McCain emphasized the value of giving the public greater access to Congressional Research Service reports, which members of Congress use for making policy decisions.

The service is a branch of the Library of Congress that provides unbiased analysis on a vast array of subjects at the request of members of Congress.

"Today, too many Americans believe that members of Congress simply sell their votes to the highest campaign contributor," McCain said then. "It is my hope that the public will have a more accurate view of the congressional decision-making process by allowing them to see these CRS products."

But some members of Congress feared Internet publication of the reports would make the CRS liable to lawsuits by those who disagree with its findings. McCain and others contend that the service is protected by congressional immunity.

Public interest organizations have urged Congress for several years to put more public information online where it is easier to find. They say online lobbyist disclosure reports and congressional gift receipt disclosures would greatly help the public track who is trying to influence Congress.

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