Citizen Journalists Find Majority of Congressional Web Sites are not Tools for Transparency


Rep. John T. Doolittle, R-Calif., Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and three other members post their daily schedules–including who they’re meeting with–on their official, taxpayer-supported Web sites. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., and Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, both offer lists of the earmarks they’ve requested. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., posts information on his interventions with government regulatory agencies. Meanwhile, 374 congressional Web sites failed to provide basic information on what the member does in Washington, from providing the name or names of committees served on to the bills they sponsor, citizen journalists found.

Those are a few of the results of a distributed research project launched by the Sunlight Foundation and performed by some 300 citizen journalists, who evaluated congressional Web sites to determine whether they provided three kinds of information: Access to basic information on what they do in Congress (the bills they sponsor, the committees they serve on); information from or access to any of the legally-required disclosures they have to file (on personal finances or junkets they take); and any additional information that furthers transparency (their daily schedule, lists of earmarks they’ve asked for or gotten).

The survey asked twelve questions-five in the first section (worth eight points each), four in the second (nine points) and three in the third (eight points each). We considered 40 points to be a passing score-all a member had to do was provide contact information, lists or links to bills sponsored, committees served upon and lists or links to statements in the Congressional Record. The average score was 29.

Complete data from the investigation, including information on specific members and breakdowns for specific questions, are available here. A total of 300 citizen journalists took part in the survey from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The average time spent researching member sites was seven minutes. The research began of Feb. 14, 2007, and was completed on March 5.

The Sunlight Foundation verified results, but an important caveat is in order: sometimes information on Web sites can be extremely difficult to find. For example, the daily schedule that Sen. Nelson publishes on his site can be accessed only from a page that lists the addresses of his offices. Researchers at the Sunlight Foundation learned of Nelson’s calendar from a reporter working on a story, and despite knowing it was somewhere on the Web site, had trouble locating the information.

The Sunlight Foundation will correct any inaccuracies, and will also update the results page to reflect improvements made by members. Complete information on each member’s will also be available at, the citizen’s encyclopedia on Congress.

Citizen journalists found that 124 members failed to link to any kind of official source of information–the Library of Congress or a committee Web site-giving information on their activities in Congress. And only 239 members provided statements or links to statements in they make on the House or Senate floor, which of course are published in the Congressional Record and online at Thomas, the Library of Congress site providing congressional information.

Two members–Rep. Virgil Goode, R-Va., and Rep. Daniel Lipinski, D-Ill.-provide no email address or other means of contacting them electronically. Some House members that do provide an email contact use Write your Rep, a form that requires emailers to first provide a nine-digit zip codes; if a zip code doesn’t fall within the member’s district, the emailer can’t contact the member.

No member provided or linked to any of the legally required disclosures on personal finances, junkets taken sponsored by third parties, or expenses charged to taxpayers for official purposes. Such disclosures are intended to allow voters to determine whether a member has a conflict of interest; the more difficult it is for voters to obtain such information, the less effective such disclosures are.

Only a handful of members provided additional disclosures-four publish daily schedules, including Sen. John Tester, D-Mont., Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., in addition to Nelson and Doolittle, two publish lists of earmarks, and one provides information on attempts to influence executive branch actions.

Other members provide information on where there mobile offices will be, while some are inching towards greater disclosure. Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, publishes a weekly calendar, though when citizen journalists first discovered it, it appeared it had not been updated for roughly three weeks.

Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., also publishes a calendar, but while it has a function allowing visitors to search for meetings, it appears that the only information provided is whether the House is in or out of session.

Many members publish some information touting the earmarks they’ve secured for their district or state-for example, running on a column on the right side of her official home page, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, D-W.V., runs a “recent news” box that includes information on individual earmarks, along with other press releases. Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, publishes an elaborate annual report that, among other things, notes that he wrote 220 letters to secure grants for Ohio projects, but lists just nine of them that were funded without specifying how many of others were funded, or what they are.

By contrast, Rep. Culberson publishes copies of the letters he submits to the appropriations committee requestion earmarks, while Rep. Cooper offers summaries of his requests.

And, though members of Congress frequently interact with regulatory agencies, Rep. Henry Waxman is the only member who provides, from his issues page, links to his interventions with executive branch officials.

Note: The first paragraph of this story was updated to correct an error. There were 374 Web sites lacked basic information, not 499, as originally reported. For more details, click here.