navigationTo Federal Internet Guide Home Page

Bit by Bit, Congress Is Opening Up to the Information Age

By Barbara J. Saffir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 2, 1997; Page A17

As the sun breaks over the Pacific Northwest, Rep. Rick A. White (R-Wash.), a Dartmouth graduate who studied philosophy at the Sorbonne and still lists "shoe salesman" on his resume, sits at his desk overlooking the Cannon House Office Building's gray courtyard, tapping away on his laptop computer to check the ferry schedules for his Bainbridge Island home.

White, 43, is among a handful of congressmen who personally depend on the Internet and is one of the chief proselytizers encouraging fellow members to acquaint themselves with a medium they are being called upon more and more to oversee.

Congress and cyberspace have grown increasingly entwined. About 25 pending bills relate to the Internet, more than double the number introduced during the entire 104th Congress. More than two-thirds of the members have set up "offices" on the World Wide Web while congressional organizations pump voluminous information on revamped Web sites and activists cry for more.

Last year, White, founder of a bipartisan, bicameral Internet Caucus that has grown from 20 to 97 members, called Congress "lost in cyberspace." Now, he says, there has been "a real sea change in Congress . . . in terms of understanding the Internet and being open to it."

White, however, was not the first legislator in cyberspace. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) ventured online in February 1993 and built the first member's Web site about a year later.

"When I made the suggestion that [Kennedy] could be reaching his constituents online, he immediately grasped the potential," said Chris Casey, who launched Kennedy's home page and wrote "The Hill on the Net: Congress Enters the Information Age."

The House and Senate went online with text-only Internet sites in 1993, and by October 1995 both had switched over to point-and-click Web sites, which millions tap into from computers in schools, libraries, offices and homes nationwide. Last summer about 160 representatives had Web sites. That number has risen to 255.

"We're working on [getting a Web site] right now," said David Allen, a spokesman for Rep. Sander M. Levin (D-Mich.). Levin serves on the subcommittee that oversees the Social Security Administration, which recently came under congressional fire for making taxpayers' earnings records available online.

The Senate handles things a little differently.

"Every senator is required to have a presence on the [Senate Internet] server," said Tom Meenan in the sergeant-at-arms office. All 100 senators technically have had sites since October 1995. Until this year most were one-page billboards generated by the Senate Computer Center; now all but a handful have substituted more functional individualized home pages.

Most congressional sites simply display a photo and biography, address and phone lists, tourist guides, instructions for purchasing a flag flown atop the Capitol, applications for internships and military academy nominations and links to home-state sites. Though many steer visitors to a lawmaker's recent votes and comments in the Congressional Record, most lie relatively static, devoid of search tools (coming soon on the Senate site), sound, video and interaction, and more than a dozen members still lack e-mail addresses.

Sen. John D. Ashcroft (R-Mo.), whose mailbox has been stuffed with 200 electronic missives in a single day, is one of a few members who answers e-mail electronically. "We've saved about 250,000 pieces of paper . . . and involved a whole new group of folks" in the legislative process, Ashcroft said.

Rep. David E. Skaggs (D) responds to all Coloradans whether or not they live in his district, though members can block e-mail from unwanted Zip codes. Rep. Ernest J. Istook Jr. (R-Okla.) and Sen. Charles S. Robb (D-Va.) send news releases via e-mail to subscribers around the country.

White's office takes the action one step further. Three time zones away in a region where Microsoft and other high-tech companies employ thousands, his constituents can apply online for internships and military service academy appointments and submit forms requesting help from him or his district offices, which are hooked up to the Internet and two intranets -- an internal computer network serving the House and their own in-house network, nicknamed "WhiteNet."

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), another hands-on Internet user who has been answering e-mail for nearly three years, recently chatted online with students from a one-room schoolhouse in his home state, where IBM is the biggest employer.

"The Internet is a great facilitator that takes me directly into their classroom and brings the students directly to Capitol Hill. . . . I enjoy the spontaneity, and the students keep me on my toes," Leahy said.

Online chats and "cybercasts" are growing commonplace and even providing an alternative to television. Nonprofit groups such as Highway 1 and are hosting online town hall meetings, where congressmen often banter with their constituents' children.

C-SPAN cranked up its cyberspace presence in January. Internet users can watch live C-SPAN shows on their computer monitors or pop in selected footage from past proceedings. When both C-SPAN TV channels are busy covering Congress, Internet viewers can watch other live news events before they are broadcast on television.

Home pages maintained by the House, Senate, Library of Congress and Government Printing Office -- which publish the Congressional Record, the Federal Register, the U.S. Code, bills, committee schedules and more -- welcome millions of visitors each month. Senate pages received 3.7 million "hits" in April and nearly one quarter of the 42 million transactions on the Library of Congress's home pages were conducted on its "Thomas" legislative site.

But despite the exhaustive array of legislative resources, it is the material congressional sites have omitted that's causing an uproar at both ends of the political spectrum. The Heritage Foundation and a Ralph Nader group, the Congressional Accountability Project, have called for Congress to guarantee that more information in the legislative process be available electronically, including committee reports.

"Providing citizens outside of Washington with the means to closely examine and actively monitor the work of their elected representatives would do more to foster openness and prevent back-room politics than any other single reform," said Ken Weinstein of the Heritage Foundation.

Other information stored in a variety of electronic formats but not posted on the Internet includes members' financial disclosure forms as well as travel and spending records, lobbyist registrations and Congressional Research Service reports, which members can read on the House and Senate intranets.

Nearly three years ago, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) proposed changing House rules to require that conference and committee reports be filed electronically so that information is available to "every citizen in the country at the same moment that it is available to the highest-paid Washington lobbyist."

Gingrich unveiled the Library of Congress's legislative Web site but straggled onto the Internet himself about 19 months after Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.) created the first representative's home page. A Gingrich spokesman said he will soon introduce a separate speaker's page.

White is drafting legislation to make Congress, the courts and executive agencies move more public records online. In January he and others pushed the House Rules Committee to require committees and subcommittees to publish reports, amendments and other documents on the Internet. Instead, the committee adopted language that required committees only to post publications "to the maximum extent feasible."

"It got watered down substantially from a very nice specific list of things that you had to make available online," White said.

House and Senate rules restrict what members can post on the Web. Neither body allows political links, although at least one site violates that edict. Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-Fla.) leads his visitors to the Democratic National Committee and the College Democrats of America. Several members point to organizations that helped bankroll their campaigns, which is permissible under current rules.

While members have had the luxury of pondering their move online, the offices that provide the systems for Internet and other communications -- the Senate Computer Center and House Information Resources (HIR) -- have been forced to keep pace with skyrocketing demands.

HIR, whose budget climbs to $50 million next year, was blasted last month by the House inspector general, who said that "fundamental management weaknesses may contribute to HIR's inability to implement the CyberCongress initiative as envisioned by the speaker . . . [and it] spent millions on major systems development efforts which have proved to be inadequate."

HIR agreed to 26 management changes recommended in the review, which claims to be the first comprehensive audit performed on the agency since its predecessor began in 1971.

Smaller blunders also seem inevitable as Congress races online. And those leading the way are not immune.

Ashcroft's site misspelled the title of a section calling for English as the official language. One page on his site praised a Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) program while another demanded that all federal funding be cut for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which provides 12 percent of PBS's budget.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

Back to the top

Go to Federal Page | Go to Government | Go to Politics Section

Home page Site Index Search Help! Home page Site Index Search Help!