Information Access: Congress and the President Should Disclose Their Records on the Internet

The information age, we have been told repeatedly, is the signal characteristic of the modern political economy. Technology will liberate and advance the voices and impact of all people as it decentralizes power, say numerous books and essays.

Well, let’s examine those articles of faith in two areas — that of congressional information and federal government contracting.
For years, less than one percent of U.S. Congress members would give the folks back home an annual summary of their voting records. Citizens had to research the cumbersome congressional record or other compilations for hours to come close to learning what the senator or representative could put inside one envelope every December.

Along comes the Internet and the proliferation of congressional Web sites. Members of Congress filled them with their often self-serving messages. Yet something is missing: their voting records.

Voting records are key to the democratic process. Your having ready and easy access to them is essential to understanding the record behind the political rhetoric, and to holding politicians accountable.

The software and hardware technology are available. But, remarkably, Congress has not placed on the Internet a searchable database of congressional votes, indexed by bill name, bill subject, bill title, member name, etc. This database would be inexpensive to produce and simple to maintain.

Does technology have its own imperative? Not like concentrated congressional power does.

What about taxpayers trying to find out about the hundreds of billions of dollars in federal government contracts with business vendors? Here is the summary experience of one taxpayer, who wanted to conduct an exercise in self-education and started calling both contractors and government agencies off a list that the Washington Post publishes every Monday in its business section.

First, he called the contractors, companies that provide products and services to government agencies. These include, among other things, landscaping, computer hardware, building construction, and publishing. He was quite surprised. Several of the government contractors had no listed telephone number, while others only had voice mail, and messages weren’t returned.

When somebody did answer, the replies varied from “What business is it of yours?” to recommending that he call the contracting agency or file a freedom-of-information request from the agency. Some respondents said they couldn’t locate a copy of the contract. Some said, “Sure, good-bye,” or told him they would call him back, and never did.

The outcome of dozens of calls: not one copy of a contract that taxpayers paid for and in many cases not even the courtesy of a telephone reply.

He next started calling the government agencies that received the products and services. Here he at least talked to human beings, many of whom said they could not even respond until he gave them the contract number. It was not sufficient that he gave them the description and date of the contract as it appeared in the Washington Post.

Some departments did not know which of their field offices or subdivisions did the contracting. Many of the departments — such as the Department of Justice, the Department of Labor, and the Army Corps of Engineers — said he would have to file a freedom-of-information request.

That advice doesn’t guarantee a copy in a reasonable amount of time for a reasonable copying price. It just starts what often is a laborious, time-consuming process.

At least the Justice Department gave him the contract number and the name of the person to whom a formal information request should be directed, but there was no assurance that he would get a copy.

There is an obvious solution to difficulties in obtaining public contracts between government and business, whether they be corporate welfare; civilian and military services and products rendered; technology transfers; leases of public lands with oil, gas, coal, timber, and other natural resources; or even governmental functions themselves that are corporatized. The Clinton administration, which regularly boasts about the need to wire everything and everybody to the Internet, should place all contracts, grants, and other agreements over a minimum dollar sum on the Internet.

Then there would be massively greater public knowledge, scrutiny, and scholarship about these truly momentous agreements that make up much of what the federal government does every day. Citizens would be appraised of excessive charges, unconscionable taxpayer assets being given away, and just bad policies much earlier through the media and through the Internet.

As of now, the Clintonites have shown no interest in forging a comprehensive Internet disclosure policy in this area. It is not part of their reinventing government program.

Once again available technology does not have its own imperative. Cliquish corporate/political power holds the reins. You may wish to write the president about this or e-mail him at [email protected]

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