CongressLine – The Congressional Electronic Coming of Age

Carol M. Morrissey has been the Legislative Specialist for the Washington, D. C. office of Chicago’s Sidley & Austin for 11 years. She is a lawyer and legislative expert who has also authored a Congressional update column for the last 4 years.

(Archived December 5, 1996)

C ongress adjourned sine die on October 4, 1996, effectively closing the door on the 104th Congress and any legislation which was still pending. The Members experienced an awakening during this past session – they became true believers in the power of online electronic technology. They are now very aware that their constituents are out there, surfing the Net, sending them e-mails, letting Congress know they have needs and that they want information and access, and they want it now!

O nline technology is virtually unexplored legislative territory. For many Members, it even represents a foreign language (although there are Members, such as Rep. Rick White (R-WA), founder and a co-Chair of the Internet Caucus, and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who are conversant with online technology). Acknowledging the existence of online electronic technology and its impact upon the American people, not to mention the world, open up a pandora’s box of issues of which access, censorship and privacy are just a few.

K nowledge is power and the American public is demanding access to more and more information. Politicians tell us they are committed to making government open and available, in short, more accessible to the public. Thus, the birth of the “Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments of 1996,” ( P.L. 104-231), which was signed by the President on October 2, 1996. The Freedom of Information Act, or “FOIA,” mandates (without getting into too much detail) that federal government agencies disclose, upon formal request, records in their possession (unless, of course, the information falls into the “exempt” category of documents). The “Electronic Freedom of Information Act,” as one would guess, is about access to information stored in an electronic, or computer-based, format. A record under the Act is now information in any format, print or electronic, and agencies must honor requests for documents by providing the information in the particular format requested (such as disc, CD-ROM or the Net). Due to concerns that informal notes kept on a hard drive, software programs developed by agencies and e-mail messages could be classified as FOIA records, the law does not define “electronic record.”

H ow about online access to the political process by making available the treasure trove of information that Congressional committees generate? Rep. White (R-WA) thought that would be a good idea when he introduced H. Res. 478. Rep. White’s resolution called for an actual change in the rules of the House of Representatives to require all committees to post reports, rule changes, completed bills, roll call votes, travel expenses, committee amendments and draft legislation to the Net simultaneously with filing or availability to Members. Unfortunately, time, and the maxim that knowledge is power, were not on his side. The session ended before H. Res. 478 could even be considered by committee and such dramatic changes are admittedly a tall order for an institution where information is used as leverage for money and power. However, Rep. White has touched a nerve. The groundwork has been laid, and with public sentiment on his side, he may very well see his ideas implemented during the 105th Congress.

P oliticians live and die by their voting records (“I stand by my Record”), so why don’t we make their voting records available online the day after the vote is cast? That is what Rep. Lofgren (D-CA) had in mind when she introduced the “Citizens’ Right to Know Resolution” (H. Res. 454). The proceedings of the House of Representatives, which include all votes, were to be placed online upon release of the print version (the Congressional Record), which usually comes out the next day. Not only that, it was to be completely indexed and easily searchable. Bearing the same title, but with an eye to forcing political candidates to be as honest as they all claim they are, is H.R. 3653, sponsored by Rep. Rivers (D-MI). Her legislation would require candidates to file their quarterly candidate reports electronically with the Federal Election Commission and to make them available on the Net as of January 1999. Though neither of these bills garnered much political nor public support, the access tide is strong enough that comparable concepts will surface in the next Congress.

A s always, there are two sides to the access issue, the public on one side of the coin, the politicians on the other. Early in the 1996 election cycle, CompuServe offered to provide free Internet service to all federal candidates. The Federal Election Commission ruled that the free sites would constitute a monetary contribution to the candidates’ campaigns by a corporation and was therefore prohibited under federal election campaign laws. In an effort to resolve this dilemma, Rep. White entered the fray and sponsored the “Internet Election Information Act of 1996” (H. R. 3700) to exempt donated Internet services from the FEC requirements, as long as all candidates were provided with the same opportunity. H.R. 3700 passed the House in September and then came to a grinding halt in the Senate, a victim of the election year fervor to wrap up the session so the campaigning could begin in earnest. All indications are that it certainly has the support to succeed next Congress.

A ccess is definitely all the rage up on Capitol Hill. This trend will continue, as online technology advances and the American public become increasingly aware of the opportunities literally at their fingertips. What remains to be seen is how this atmosphere of near total disclosure will affect the political process and how Americans in general behold their elected officials.

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