Copyright 1999 Times Mirror Company  Los Angeles Times, November 30, 1999

Congress Pulls the Shades on Net;  If Members Are So Proud of What They Do, They Ought To Post Their Voting Records Clearly On the Net.
By Ralph Nader and Gary Ruskin

It's almost 2000. We're deep into the Internet Age. And it seems that nearly everything is on the Internet, except Congress.

If there's one cause that the information superhighway ought to serve, it's democracy, But, regrettably, for Congress this has become last in line.

If you fire up your Web browser looking for even the most important congressional information, chances are you won't find it. Congress has refused for years to place many of its most useful materials on the Internet. This is especially true regarding what our members of Congress really do in Washington. We get mainly what they want us to know, not what we need.

While individual members of Congress and congressional committees have Web pages, those pages are packed with self-serving fluff, obfuscation and public-relations claptrap.

The Library of Congress maintains the Thomas Web page (http://thomas.loc.gov), which is great for historians. But why not also make available the most useful, up-to-date congressional materials, so that citizens could easily obtain the information they need to help shape legislative efforts and participate in furthering congressional accountability? To ask the question is to answer it.

Voting records are central to the democratic process. Access to them is essential to political responsibility. But, remarkably, Congress has yet to place on the Internet a searchable database of congressional votes, indexed by bill name, bill subject, bill title, member name, etc.

Such a database would be inexpensive to produce and simple to maintain. Currently, roll call votes are available via the Thomas Web site. That's a start. But they aren't in a searchable database, so it is time-consuming to compile a member's voting record from this site. Citizens ought to be able to type in a member's name and a topic and out would come that member's voting record on that issue.

If members of Congress are so proud of what they do in Washington, they ought to make it easy for citizens to obtain their voting records.

Congressional Research Service reports are some of the best research that the federal government does and provide much of the background that Congress uses to draft our laws. Yet, in a notable backhand to taxpayers, Congress has arranged for CRS to place about 3,400 of its reports and products on an internal congressional intranet for use by members of Congress and their staffs but not the public.

Taxpayers ought to be able to read the research that they pay for. But citizens cannot obtain most CRS reports directly. Instead, they must purchase them from private vendors--at high cost--or engage in the time-consuming process of requesting a congressman to send CRS reports to them. Often, citizens wait for weeks or months before such a request is filled.

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), and Reps. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and David Price (D-N.C.) have introduced legislation (S393, HR 654) to place CRS reports on the Internet. But these bills are stalled in committee.

Obviously, texts of bills are Congress' most important work product. Why should high-priced lobbyists have special access to the most important texts of bills? Congress should require that all texts of bills be placed on the Internet as soon as they are printed or are made available to lobbyists or members of a committee or subcommittee. The most important texts of bills--working versions, discussion drafts, chairmen's marks, managers' marks--are infrequently placed on the Internet. Draft committee and conference reports, too, rarely make the Internet. Many Washington lobbyists get paid large sums of money to insert tiny but important provisions in committee or conference reports. Such provisions affect the way a law is carried out, or how government funding is distributed. Congress should place these draft reports, too, on the Internet promptly.

There are lots of arguments about what, if anything, the Internet is good for. But there is no question that the Internet is magnificent for distributing information. Let's demand that Congress harness this technology to inform the voters and strengthen our democracy.

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate. Gary Ruskin is director of the Congressional Accountability Project.Web site:, http://www.essential.org/orgs/CAP/CAP.html