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Getting Congress to go online

FOI Alert Volume 3, Issue 4 (1997-98)

Legislation has been introduced to make more Congressional documents available through the Internet.

"The most important Congressional documents aren't on the Internet," says Gary Ruskin, with the Congressional Accountability Project.

This Ralph Nader-affiliated group in Washington, D.C., has been pushing for more on-line access to documents for the past three years.

Senate bill 1578 has been introduced by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Daniel Coats, R-Ind., John D. Ashcroft, R-Mo., Lauch Faircloth, R-N.C., and is assigned to the Senate Rules Committee. There also is a companion bill in the House under HR 3131. Here are some items Ruskin suggests should be posted electronically:

Votes cast by individuals in an easy search format. Currently, you can't search on a key word pertaining to legislation or a name.
Text of bills as they are changed in committee. Currently, you can only get bills only as introduced and passed.
Lobbyist reports.
Indianapolis Star & News Washington bureau reporter David L. Haase posted a Jan. 6 column about Congressional on-line materials at StarNews.com . Haase points out even more stuff you can't get online that would be helpful to citizens and journalists.

Spending reports from the Clerk of the House and Secretary of the Senate. This includes how much members spent on offices, staff salaries, etc.
Gift and travel reports.
Foreign travel reports.
Legal expense fund reports, for members who have legal problems and set up groups to help pay for their lawyers.
Getting this information on the Internet does not require legislation.

"Many people could do this," said Ruskin, referring to leaders of both the Senate Rules and House Oversight committees. "We citizens are supposed to obey the laws but even the laws aren't available on the Internet."

McCain's bill is all of two pages. One of SPJ's concerns: The information "shall so be made available not earlier than 30 days after the first day the information is available to members of Congress through the Congressional Research web site." The original proposal was 60 days.

Staffers say this lag time is necessary to make sure the information posted is correct. SPJ would prefer to see language that makes posting as immediate or the rest of the world as it is for Congress.

Though it sounds like a winning measure, it could run into trouble.

An article in the Jan. 15 edition of ROLL CALL suggests it could have constitutional problems. A memo prepared by Congressional Research Service reports lawyers suggest that going online could pose legal problems by jeopardizing constitutional privileges of the House and Senate.

CRS officials are apparently worried that making their work more widely available "could prompt outsiders to file slander or libel lawsuits," according to the article.

Ruskin, whose office also did a legal analysis, suggests these arguments are "preposterous and just wrong."

The issue then becomes cloudy over who decides what CRS information goes online. As journalists know, government officials suddenly panic when any information is provided for larger audiences.

This measure will prove no different.

The bill also gives the CRS director the discretion not to release confidential information. Ruskin has been floating endorsement letters on several listservs for journalists to review. His letter asks for support in posting Congressional Research Service reports and products on the Internet including "CRS Issue and Legislative Briefs, and Authorization and Appropriation products.

"CRS products are some of the finest research prepared by the federal government. They are a precious source of government information on a huge range of topics. In a recent editorial, Roll Call described CRS reports as 'often the most trenchant and useful monographs available on a subject.' Citizens, scholars, journalists, librarians, businesses, and many others have long wanted access to CRS reports via the Internet."
CRS receives nearly $65 million in taxpayer funds.

But CRS officials are also the likeliest group of people to damn this valuable legislation.

Beacoup editorials have been written about these efforts but very little in the way of daily coverage, even with a few oversight hearings that have occurred.

As The Dallas Morning News noted aptly in a Feb. 17 editorial: "Even in the age of C-SPAN, Congress' inner workings remain a mystery to most Americans." Let's work to unlock that vault.

If you are interested in supporting this measure, please contact your local delegation or Sen. John W. Warner, R.-Va., who chairs the Senate Rules Committee. Warner can be reached at:

225 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510-4601

Also, see "Surfing for federal government resources," by Jeff Inglis, published in The IRE Journal, November-December 1997.

For more information, contact:

Gary Ruskin
Congressional Accountability Project
1611 Connecticut Ave. NW
Suite #3A
Washington, D.C. 20009
(phone) 202-296-2787
(fax) 202-833-2406

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