A Modern Congress Needs Modern Web Sites


The Hill newspaper ran an Op-Ed written by David All and myself on Tuesday in the Open House Project Op-Ed series. We run down the reasons why member Web sites are often just polished brochures, accessories to the actual functions of the office. First and foremost is the rule regime governing member Web content. These rules date from the early to mid-nineties and do not reflect the current nature of the Internet in the 21st Century. David and I advocate for these rules to be changed and for the Committee on House Administration to create a bipartisan panel to solve the problem. I've been blogging about member Web sites over at the Open House Project blog this week. So far, I've covered Ben Nelson's Google Map of his Iraq CODEL, Jack Kingston's dynamic member site, and the attitude on Capitol Hill in regards to member Web sites. Below the fold I've included the Op-Ed that David and I wrote.

Modern world, ancient websites

by David All and Paul Blumenthal

June 19, 2007

Technology and politics are rapidly intertwining in the new millennium as presidential candidates adopt sophisticated online operations to raise money, get out the vote and connect to new voters. Social networking, blogging and online video technologies have taken the political world by storm. But in Washington, members of Congress are forced to watch this race for online superiority from the sidelines.

It’s not their fault. While candidates for office can do as they please with their websites, members of Congress are heavily restricted in the kinds of activities they can partake in on their official websites, because they are governed by Franking Rules. These rules were created decades ago to restrict the use of mass mailings sent to congressional districts at taxpayer expense. Franking Rules, modified to apply to the Web in 1994 and last updated in 1996, state that members may not use non-congressionally provided services for their website, nor link to any site of a personal or political nature.

Due to such restrictions, most member websites function as little more than online brochures, when they could better serve as a place to share information about the member’s activities in Congress, or even as a vital community center. Under these rules, members cannot use Google maps to provide visuals for district information important to constituents. Neither can members use non-congressionally provided blogging tools, nor link to other blogs that may be deemed to be of a political nature.

Therefore, members of Congress cannot partake in the important conversation happening online, while any citizen can start a blog, contribute to a wiki and generally engage in unfettered online debate.

Congress should recognize that the Internet is a vastly different communications medium than any that lawmakers have used before. The open-source era, known widely for its Web 2.0 programs and websites, allows citizens much greater capacity to control who they talk to, what news they receive and what new portals they might use to better distribute information throughout the entire world. Lawmakers have to be able to participate in the same manner.

The onerous restrictions placed by Franking Rules may lead members of Congress to neglect the greater potential of their websites. According to recent reports by the Sunlight Foundation and the Congressional Management Foundation, most members only present a small part of the information that would be useful for constituents. Too few member websites list bills they sponsor, the earmarks they secure or the votes they cast. Even fewer post members’ daily schedules or the various disclosure forms they are required to file each year. Lifting or at least clearly codifying the restrictions on member websites will make robust public access more easily attainable and will allow members to take full advantage of technology developments to better connect with constituents.

Given the rapid development of online communications, the time has come to re-imagine the world of the wired elected official.

In 1994, a House-appointed special task force created new rules to govern House Web use. These rules may have been appropriate for the Internet of 1994, but they are unacceptable for the open-source era.

The Committee on House Administration should, therefore, convene a bipartisan task force of members of Congress, congressional staff and citizens to better identify the intent of the current rules and regulations that are effectively prohibiting smarter use of congressional websites to communicate with constituents and present information.