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Ellen Miller

Ellen Miller

Posted: September 23, 2009 07:28 AM

Congress' Tech-Oriented Growth Spurt

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One question that always surfaces in my discussions about transparency and technology in Congress is, "Who in Congress gets it?" It's an unfortunate question to always hear, because it just isn't the right metric to be thinking about. More notable is the rapid acceptance of new technologies among members of Congress, their staff and, now, the Executive Branch.

When the Sunlight Foundation was founded three years ago, the number of lawmakers that were up to speed on the Internet could be counted on one hand. (My colleague Andrew Rasiej of the Personal Democracy Forum liked to joke that lawmakers didn't know the difference between a server and a waiter.) Three years ago, those using the Web for transparency likely registered around zero. But in the intervening years, Congress has adapted to the Internet at incredible speed.

Some may want to attribute this to the natural adoption of new technologies. Previous technological innovations, however, were adopted by Congress at a much slower pace. After first being proposed in the 1940s, televised proceedings were not adopted until 1979. The last congressional office not using computers went wired in 1995. It took eight years, from 1993 to 2001, for all lawmakers to have official Web sites. So the recent three-year period of adoption that we have seen for Internet technologies is impressive when compared to these other technologies.

When you think about it, this makes a lot of sense. Lawmakers have a pressing need to find more ways to connect, communicate and interact with their constituents. No politician wants to receive the defamatory subtitle "out of touch," and these technologies enable the kinds of two-way, or many-to-many, communications that members of Congress crave. You can see this in the almost obsessive thumb-chatter lawmakers like Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri or Rep. John Culberson of Texas have with their fans and constituents on Twitter.

And, while there are countless lawmakers who have taken to Twitter or Facebook to keep in touch with their constituents, or chiefly as self-promotional opportunities, some are also using their online presence to be as transparent as they can be.

Online transparency really came to the fore after the 2006-midterm elections, which featured a heavy focus on ethics in the wake of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. Two lawmakers, then- Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, were elected to Congress and almost immediately began posting their daily schedules to their official Web sites. Both won their seats thanks to the broad brush of corruption Abramoff left on Congress. Today, there are at least ten lawmakers who post online their daily schedule. Not all of this is superficial, either. A review of Sen. Max Baucus' schedule by the Sunlight Foundation's Paul Blumenthal revealed numerous meetings with health industry executives and lobbyists during the period that Baucus had been crafting a health-care compromise bill.

Rep. Gillibrand was also one of the first lawmakers to post both her earmark requests and her personal financial disclosure to her site, which she continues to do after being appointed to the United States Senate. Due to the successful push for earmark disclosure (something Sunlight has been very active in advocating), every lawmaker in the House and Senate are now required to post their earmark requests to their official Web site.

While some individual lawmakers have voluntarily used the Web to increase their ability to communicate and be transparent, what has really driven more online congressional transparency are recent legal and rules changes that have been championed by leaders of both parties. The adoption of many of these policies also help show how Congress has quickly adapted to the ways of the Web:

* Both House and the Senate members post their roll call votes in XML format. This is particularly useful for advanced processing and analysis, making votes machine-readable, which should help fuel a renaissance of vote analysis and visualization.

* Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader John Boehner both played significant roles in reversing a Franking Rules policy that discouraged lawmakers from using social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

* The party leadership on both sides and in both chambers worked together to forge a policy with YouTube to allow the posting of congressional videos within the Franking Rules guidelines.

* Both chambers will begin posting their expenditure reports online within the next year or two. Under guidance from Speaker Pelosi, the Chief Administrative Officer will create a site (to be launched next month) for public perusal of the reports that disclose how representatives spend their "Member Representational Allowances" -- the federal funds allocated to support expenses such as staff salaries, official travel and administrative supplies. In the Senate, Sen. Coburn introduced an amendment requiring the Senate to post a searchable database of these reports by July 2011.

From these emblematic examples, it's clear that members of Congress understand the potential the Internet affords them to shine a light on their work and exponentially increase transparency. This will, ultimately, go a long way toward dramatically improving public confidence and trust of Congress. Lawmakers should be commended for the speed at which they are embracing the Web as it is now, but they need also to be poised to adapt to the coming wave of change, the real-time Web. In the real-time Web, we need real-time disclosure, but I'll save that for another post.

 

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