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America Off-Line: Gingrich's Unfulfilled Internet Promise

By Gary Ruskin
Sunday, November 16, 1997; Page C02


Three years ago, on Nov. 11, 1994, the ascendant Rep. Newt Gingrich stepped to the podium in the House of Representatives. About to become the first Republican Speaker in 40 years, Gingrich spoke of the "large changes" that he would seek for the nation. One of them was to "change the rules of the House" to ensure that congressional information "will be available to any citizen in the country at the same moment that it is available to the highest paid Washington lobbyist."

It was a worthy pledge, rich with promise for regenerating civic culture in the United States and eminently practical with the new computer technologies that have long fascinated Gingrich. Putting a lot more congressional information on the Internet would make our democracy far more open and the ways of Washington more transparent to the average interested citizen. Yet Gingrich's promise has gone unfulfilled and is now almost completely forgotten.

Sure, some congressional information is available. You can subscribe to Legi-Slate, an on-line source owned by The Washington Post Co., which offers a congressional service, providing something like what Gingrich promised -- for $4,750 per year. Or you can get Congressional Quarterly's on-line service for $155 to $205 per hour. While law firms and trade associations can afford these prices, most voters, nonprofits and charitable groups cannot.

There are some on-line sources that are free, but they provide much less information. You can get the Congressional Record going back to 1994 from the Government Printing Office's GPO Access (http://www.access.gpo.gov/su_docs/dbsearch.html) and the Library of Congress service, Thomas (http://thomas.loc.gov). Both sources also provide committee reports for both the House and Senate and conference reports and the texts of some bills.

But consider the additional information Congress could put on the Internet:

Voting records. This is the most elemental part of the legislative process, and the cornerstone of democratic accountability. Yet Congress has not established a nonpartisan, easily searchable Internet database of congressional voting records, indexed by bill name, subject, bill title, member's name and the like. Thomas does have all roll-call votes but not on a database; it is extremely time-consuming to use. C-SPAN's (http://congress.nw.dc.us/c-span/congvote.html) offers a more useful data base of roll call votes but it only goes back to 1996 and you can't search the votes by members name so its usefulness is limited. It is easier to find out stock market reports on-line than the voting record of your own congressman.

Texts of bills and amendments. The most important texts -- discussion drafts, committee chairmen's drafts (known as "marks") and committee prints -- usually don't make it onto GPO Access or Thomas, because committee chairs won't allow it. So, while Washington lobbyists read the relevant working drafts of bills, the rubes back home get to see the antiquated versions.

Congressional office expenditures. Officially called Statements of Disbursement of the House, and Secretary of the Senate reports, these documents show how members of Congress spend their office money. The Senate, for example, retains a "wagon master" at the cost of $40,000 a year. And exactly what does the congressional "wagon master" do? That's just the kind of question informed citizens should be able to direct to their representatives in Washington.

Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports and issue briefs. CRS is a branch of the Library of Congress, which is the "People's Library," not a private preserve of elected officials and their staffs. But that is how Congress uses it. CRS reports are among the best research produced by the federal government, on subjects ranging from abortion to weapons systems. Want to know the average pension of retired members of Congress? The only place I know to find it is a CRS report issued in 1996. (The figure is $49,789 per year, by the way). The public, not just members of Congress, should be able to get these reports at no charge over the Internet.

Hearing records and written testimony. Congress invites experts and scholars to testify on the important issues of the day. Their testimony could be a great democratic resource. Hearing records also provide a rare opportunity for Americans to see their representatives in (or out of) action. But few hearing records find their way onto the Internet. These hearing records are rich in detail and subtleties that the media are unwilling or unable to convey.

Lobbyist disclosure reports. The Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 requires the collection of valuable information on lobbyists' activities. This information is computerized, but it is only available on paper at the House Legislative Resource Center and the Senate Office of Public Records, where most Americans never see it. If Congress were on-line, at least 45 million people could find out with a few clicks of the mouse who is paying lobbyists, how much, and why.

Financial disclosure reports. These reports disclose the financial holdings and transactions of members of Congress. They are computerized in the House and Senate, but only the most recent reports are available via the Internet and the only through the Web site of a private group, the Center for Responsive Politics (http://www.crp.org).

Draft committee and conference reports. Much of the cloaked trade of lobbying concerns adding provisions in a committee or conference report. If draft reports of the recent tax bill were on the Internet, citizens could have reviewed what provisions special interests were inserting as it was happening. Last year, during debate over the telecommunications bill -- arguably the most important legislation approved in the 104th Congress -- the only on-line source for the most up-to-date drafts of the bill was neither Thomas or GPO Access but the regional Bell operating companies' Internet site.

In the current debate about money in politics, there is a risk of overemphasizing the role of personal corruption, of "buying access" and "influence peddling." These are real offenses, and all too prevalent. But money also buys inside information, a less-sensational problem but no less corrosive to accountability and public trust.

Gingrich, to his credit, sought to address the problem in 1994. So why hasn't he acted yet?

"Speaker Gingrich is staying true to his word and continuing to plan for ever-more technological changes which will further increase the speed and scope of posting legislation," says his spokesman Christina Martin. But exactly when these changes will take place she declines to say.

Gary Ruskin is director of the Congressional Accountability Project, a nonprofit group affiliated with Ralph Nader (http://www.essential.org/orgs/CAP/CAP.html).

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company



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