Congressional Accountability Project
P.O. Box 19446
Washington, DC 20036
(202) 296-2787
fax (202) 833-2406

July 5, 1994

Michael DiMario
Public Printer
U.S. Government Printing Office
Washington, DC 20401

Re: Free Online Access to Basic Government Information

Dear Mr. DiMario:

I am writing to criticize the Government Printing Office's (GPO) exorbitant and foolish pricing schedule for online access to the Congressional Record and the Federal Register, and to request that the GPO provide free online access to basic government information.

Specifically, I am requesting that the GPO provide free online access to the following critically important government documents:
 

Citizen access to basic government information is shamefully inadequate. The United States Congress, federal agencies, the courts, and other governmental entities produce many extremely useful documents. However, citizens attempting to access these documents run into several problems: cost of accessing information, the time it requires to access the information, and the lack of timely or up-to-date information.

Although we as a nation take pride in our democracy, in fact only a small privileged minority have the informational tools needed to access basic government information promptly. Since the majority of Americans cannot quickly, cheaply, and reliably gain access to the text of pending federal legislation, or the Congressional Record, or many other critical government documents, it is extremely difficult for most Americans to participate in the political and substantive argumentation surrounding the federal legislative process, or agency rule-making, or a congressional campaign, or a wide variety of other basic governmental processes.

Without this basic information, most citizens become spectators in a political process which shapes their day-to-day lives. However, corporate and wealthy elites, which possess the money and political resources needed to access government information, have a greater capacity to affect governmental decision-making processes. Since basic government information is so expensive and inaccessible that only wealthy and corporate elites can afford to retrieve it, these elites are disproportionately powerful in our increasingly information-driven political system. Government resources naturally flow from the information poor to the information rich. This result is particularly ironic, grating, and unfair given the use of taxpayer dollars to generate government information in the first place.

The gap between the information-rich and the information-poor erodes public confidence in the federal government, and breeds public cynicism and the belief that much of our federal government has been captured by wealthy corporate special interests. This cynicism poisons the democratic process, and cripples government's ability to solve public problems.

The point is that the barriers obstructing citizen access to basic government information are easily demolished. If citizens had quick, free, and reliable online access to basic government documents, they could more easily engage in the following civic activities:

Evaluating the text of federal legislation before Congress votes on it.

Retrieving and evaluating the voting records of their members of Congress.

Reading Congressional Research Service reports.

Reading government agency reports and news releases

Tracking notices of proposed rule-makings and as they are published in the Federal Register

Obtaining the text of a new presidential executive order

Researching campaign contributions to their members of Congress

Retrieving legislative calendars to learn of pending congressional action

Such activities are prerequisites to the development of a knowledgeable and engaged electorate. If citizens were more able to participate in the above list of civic activities, they would be better able to hold their legislators accountable for legislative actions, and more capable of shaping policy alternatives and campaign positions more of their liking.

Free online access to basic government information would likely create substantial economic benefits. Citizens would be better able to observe and comment on congressional and federal agency decision-making, decreasing the likelihood of government waste, fraud, abuse, and boondoggles. Citizens would be more able to help legislators and agencies target government financial and service initiatives, which would make such initiatives more efficient and effective. An informed public is worth the trivial cost in information distribution.

For these reasons, I am shocked and disappointed at the recent GPO decision to make the Congressional Record and the Federal Register available to the public at a cost of $750 per year. At these outrageous prices, few citizens will be able to subscribe to the GPO online service, and therefore the GPO Access program will have a negligible effect on woefully inadequate citizen access to basic government information. In addition, citizens paid dearly with their tax dollars to generate information documented in the Congressional Record and the Federal Register information. It is wrong to require them to pay exorbitant sums to purchase this information once again.

The GPO Access program's pricing schedule is classic case of a "penny-wise and pound-foolish" government policy. Given the large expected economic and social benefits from citizen access to basic government information, and relatively small costs, the GPO Access pricing schedule is indefensible. I urge you to immediately make the Congressional Record and the Federal Register available online at no cost to the user.

I think most Americans yearn to participate in congressional and federal agency decision-making, and are saddened and angered by their relative inability to do so. Americans are information-hungry -- they want to understand the inner workings of our government, and use this knowledge to guide our legislators through difficult decisions, and to hold elected officials accountable for their decisions.

Many observers of our political system have remarked on the deterioration of citizens' understanding of Washington, and vice versa. By removing barriers to accessing basic government information, the GPO could help generate a wave of public participation in congressional and federal agency decision-making, and would improve the mutual understanding between citizens, their legislators, and Washington in general.

The inability to access basic government information impoverishes our democracy, and gives unfair advantage to corporate and wealthy elites who can afford to purchase government information. Removing these barriers to accessing basic government information would be a historic decision which would strengthen and invigorate our democratic process. Citizens would be better able to instruct their legislators, and mobilize public opinion. Legislators and federal agency decision-makers would receive better advice from the citizens whose interests they are trying to promote. And our political system's capacity for public deliberation would be improved.
 
 

Sincerely,
 
 

Gary Ruskin

Director