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Congress Online: Evaluating Congressional Committee Websites

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By policy interns Eric Dunn and Jacob Hutt

This is the first in a series of blog posts about congressional committee websites. Follow these links for the second and final blogposts.

Congressional committee websites are Congress’s front door. It’s in committees where the majority of legislative work is done, and it’s where the public can have the greatest impact on legislation. Recently, we went through all forty-five House, Senate, and Joint Committee websites and evaluated them based on a transparency checklist made by Sunlight in 2010. In this first of a series of blog posts, we reveal general trends from our evaluation and highlight the websites that stood out, the ones that need some work, and a few that were just awful.

General Trends

Overall, House committee websites were better than Senate ones. Even between committees with the same jurisdiction (we’re looking at you, House Armed Services and Senate Armed Services) the quality of websites varied widely.

The House Armed Services Committee website:

vs.

The Senate Armed Services Committee website:

 

Websites often focus on form over function. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee boasts a website that looks great but lacks crucial features, such as subcommittee pages and social media tools. Committees with a direct constituency (Veterans Affairs, for example) were more likely to be functional than member-focused committees (such as Senate Rules).

Lastly, almost all congressional websites (with a few notable exceptions we’ll explore later) do not offer clear protections for whistleblowers or meet our basic criteria for disclosure.

The Stand-outs

Two committee websites stood out as extremely impressive. The first, the House Committee on Natural Resources, met 43 of our 60 recommendations and its pages on legislation and subcommittees should serve as a model for other committee websites. Similarly, the House Armed Services Committee website not only met most of our criteria but was also one of the few committees to have a regularly updated blog.

Needs some work

Many committee websites are good, but not great. The Senate Committee on Armed Services website provides some informative content, but the design looks like a high school project and it has no connection to social media. The Senate Finance Committee website has useful documents tucked away or missing, and many of those documents that are present are outdated. Many of the websites -- the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, for example -- do not have pages for legislation that include important information like the chairman’s mark or proposed amendments.

Just plain awful:

A few websites are painful. The Senate Ethics Committee is rough on the eyes and difficult to navigate. The websites for the Joint Committee on Printing and the Joint Committee on the Library are by far the worst of them all - they have not been updated in years. Half of the committee members pictured on these websites are no longer in office.

The Joint Committee on Printing's website:

Here are our evaluation spreadsheets for all 45 committee websites:

 

You can also see the Senate, House, and Joint committee website evaluations on our Tracking Committee Website Transparency wiki page.

In our next two posts, we’ll look at what’s on committee websites and how well committees reach out to constituents.

[Update: We have broadened the mark-up category to include any page referring to markups or legislation and hearings.]