- By William Matthews
- Feb 18, 2001
With more than 600 Web sites operated by Congress, you'd think it would be easy to keep track of what your congressman is up to.
But you would be wrong. Despite 535 individual Web sites, caucus sites, leadership sites, committee sites, party sites and "Thomas," the Library of Congress site devoted solely to congressional activity, just finding out how a member of congress voted on a particular bill requires some digging. Compiling a member's voting record on a series of related bills — say, tax legislation or laws regulating pharmaceutical drug pricing — is extraordinarily difficult and time consuming.
Even finding out which bills will affect pharmaceutical drug pricing is daunting, according to Gary Ruskin, director of the Congressional Accountability Project, a government reform group.
It needn't be. With the Internet and a searchable database, Congress could make access to voting records simple. "Voting records are a cornerstone of our democracy," Ruskin said. "Access to them is essential for accountability."
Other records are equally inaccessible. Key congressional hearings, potentially embarrassing reports, records of legislative favors for constituents and more are kept off the Internet.
Since 1995, for example, lobbyists have been required to file public reports disclosing which legislation they're working for or against. But if voters want to see them, they'll have to ask for them in person at the House Legislative Resource Center or at the Senate Office of Public Records in Washington, D.C.
Curious about who is adding, subtracting or changing provisions of a bill as it moves through the House and Senate? You won't find updates online either. Paper copies circulate among members of Congress and frequently are passed on to "high-paid Washington lobbyists," Ruskin said, but they're unavailable to "ordinary folks."
Amendments, markups and "discussion drafts" all should be put online, Ruskin argues. So should the forms senators must file when they accept gifts, the reports House members file on how they spent their office allowances and the reports that disclose the financial holdings of members of Congress.
The idea that such public information should be available on the Internet has caught on with a few lawmakers. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) plan to introduce the Congressional Openness Act to require that documents ranging from gift receipt reports to Congressional Research Service studies be put online.
McCain's enthusiasm isn't surprising, given that his presidential campaign last year raised millions of dollars on the Internet in a matter of days. Few lawmakers share McCain's view, however; when he introduced versions of the Congressional Openness Act in 1998 and 1999, the bills died in the Senate Rules Committee.
Overall, the Senate "has been very hesitant" about making information available via the Internet, said a Senate aide who worked on the bill. "A lot of members want to know what's being put out about them, and they want to control it."
Information technology consultant Kathy Goldschmidt offers a more benign explanation. "Congress is still struggling to figure out what the technology means and how to use it effectively. So far, the technology is a little overwhelming."
A few offices have discovered creative uses for the Web, such as video conferencing with constituents, but they are the exception, she said. Part of the problem is that each congressional office "functions as its own small business and does not have the resources or the technical skill to do what it would like to with the Web."
So there's no central authority for congressional Web sites or Internet use. "They don't want that, they want to be independent," said Goldschmidt, who works for the Congressional Management Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping congressional offices improve their management practices.
Goldschmidt wrote a guide, "Building Web Sites Constituents Will Use," in which she stresses that congressional Web sites "will be most effective if their primary purpose is to serve the functions of your receptionist — providing information, answering questions, directing people to the right resources — rather than augmenting your press office.
"Web sites are more like telephones than televisions," Goldschmidt said. Effective sites provide information constituents want — information on Social Security, veterans' benefits and business and education grants, for example.
New Web sites run by party caucuses have embraced that concept. GOP.gov, a seven-month-old creation of the House Republican Conference, provides viewers with a healthy daily feed of news releases, audio clips and position papers featuring Republican House members and Republican issues. What makes the site different, though, is that readers can sign up to receive e-mail updates on issues they select.
"What we're trying to do is talk to individuals about topics they're interested in," said James Smith, director of information technology for the House Republican Conference. So far, 10,000 individuals have visited the site, many of them repeatedly. "This is all about opportunities to talk to citizens when they're paying attention," Smith said.
The House Democratic Caucus has set up a similar site with fewer features at dcaucus web.house.gov/home. The Democrats' site is less comprehensive, but also offers e-mail updates on issues ranging from crime and drugs to technology and the digital divide.
The sites are "a rudimentary step" toward a functional electronic Congress, said French Caldwell, a technology specialist for the Gartner Group Inc., a technology consulting firm.
It may take a decade or more for Congress to grasp the possibilities of the Internet, Caldwell said. But when it does, the Internet will prove a powerful ally.
Elected representatives eventually will use technology to find out what their constituents want and to update them on congressional activity, he predicts. Incoming e-mail will undergo data mining or other automated analysis that catalogs the sender's interests, points of view and other information, perhaps including personal and demographic data.
Voters will receive e-mail messages that correspond to issues in which they have expressed interest, perhaps even to the points of view they seem inclined to support. Certain constituents may be consulted when legislation is being drafted.
Those who prove most skillful at what Caldwell calls "constituency management" will also be most successful at achieving their goals — whether it's passing legislation or getting elected.
"Whoever gets it right first will have a significant advantage, and the two major political parties just don't get it. That leaves the door wide open for third parties," Caldwell said.
Congress' slow crawl onto the Internet has created opportunities for the private sector. Thanks to hearingroom.com, for example, it now is possible to tune in to congressional hearings in Paris, Texas, or in Paris, France.
Hearingroom.com provides Web-casts of the audio portion of hearings and uses voice recognition software to produce streaming transcripts as the hearings proceed. Both the audio feed and the transcript are then kept in an archive for reference purposes.
The service — available for $1,000 to $15,000 a year — is aimed mainly at people who monitor Congress for business purposes, such as news organizations, big corporations and public interest groups. "There's a whole gamut of people interested in what's going on on the Hill and have specific needs for access and timeliness," said Phil Angell, hearingroom.com's founder and chairman.
Along with audio feeds and transcripts, hearingroom.com provides online copies of written testimony from hearing witnesses, press releases and background information relevant to the hearings.
The archived transcripts and audio feeds are linked so that users can click on phrases in the transcript and hear a specific part of the audio feed. The feature puts the text into context, Angell said. For example, the reader can hear whether a phrase was said with humor, anger or sarcasm.
A keyword feature can be activated to alert users when specified topics come up. "That means you don't have to stay glued to your computer," but can be doing other things during non-relevant parts of the hearing, Angell said.
The power of the Digital Age is that it allows information to be stored, sorted and cataloged in ways that were not available three or four years ago, Angell said. Each new advance, such as voice recognition software, increases the ability to make information more useful and accessible, he said.
"Some people argue that the government should be doing it all," Angell said. But traditionally, the government hasn't.
Long before there was an Internet, specialized publications made a business — often a good one — of acquiring and interpreting legislation, government reports, regulatory filings and other "public information" that is not widely available to the general public.
"Could Congress do it? Of course," Angell said. But so far, there's no groundswell of demand among House and Senate members for putting hearings and other information online. "There's no champion for it," he said.
In fairness, some congressional committees do Webcast their hearings, often offering video as well as audio feeds. It is up to committee and subcommittee chairmen to decide whether hearings go out on the Internet.
The House Science Committee offers Webcasts of most committee and subcommittee hearings. "Only rarely do they decide not to," a committee spokesman said. After running live, the Webcasts are archived and within two days are available to the public.
The House Agriculture Committee has Webcast the audio portion of all hearings and subcommittee hearings since 1998, and farmers across the country have applauded the practice, a committee spokeswoman said. "It provides them great access."
But other House committees, including the money- controlling Appropriations, Budget, and Ways and Means committees, do not offer Webcasts and don't plan to.
It's different in the Senate, however. Starting this month, the audio portion of all full committee hearings will be Webcast by C-SPAN, the public affairs cable television and radio network.
Recent rewiring of 26 Senate hearing rooms routed audio feeds from hearings to a central hub. From there, C-SPAN transmits audio signals to its headquarters a few blocks away, converts them into digital signals and Webcasts them on a new Web site, CapitolHearings.org.
When the audio feeds became available, "it stuck us as a perfect fit for our public service mission," said Chris Long, C-SPAN's new media director. The same sort of Web coverage is not available in the House because commit-tee hearing rooms there are not connected to a central audio hub, he said.
"We're looking for similar opportunities in the House," but rewiring House hearing rooms "is up to the House," he said.
There's no rush for Congress to be completely accessible online now, said Caldwell, the Gartner Group analyst, but he predicts that eventually it will happen.
"Congress has to decide whether to embrace the openness of the Internet. I think they have no choice — the American people are going to expect it," Caldwell said. As more people use the Internet at home and at work, they will insist that government get online.
"It's a digital society out there, and Congress is certainly lagging," he said.