The Government and the Internet

Congress is in a twitter about the Internet. Bills are pouring into the legislative hopper regarding issues of privacy, taxation of sales, wiring schools to the information highway, identity theft, spammers sending unsolicited e-mail advertisements and online gambling.

Last month, the Council for Excellence in Government released a plan for “achieving full electronic government in the United States” which the group sees as “a breakthrough comparable in impact to the invention of
the printing press”. No more waiting in lines at the motor vehicle departments or languishing on the phone to conduct some transaction with City hall, a state or federal agency.

Whiz, boom, bah-the dazzling future is knocking on the door say the techno-twits. Why Lady Democracy herself must be shaking with excitement and anticipating civic euphoria!

Not a day goes by without some member(s) of congress extolling the wonders of the Internet and its emerging transformation of the way we live, the way we work, the way we play, even the way we think.
Now, back to reality. New technology is beholden to old politics and power structures, just like the old technology. To test this assertion, we tried two experiments in the past year.

We wrote President Bill Clinton and asked, in the spirit of his “reinventing government”, to place all government contracts and grants over, say $100,000, on the government websites.

In this way, businesses, academics, trade unions, citizen groups and other individuals can review defense, natural resource, medical research, consulting, subsidy, giveaways and bailouts, among other
agreements, that the government enters into with companies, universities and other institutions.

At the present time, it can take endless calling and writing to obtain copies of these documents, if they can be obtained at all.

My associates once called scores of civilian agencies and companies to obtain these contracts and they were stonewalled, and in some instances elicited assertions that the taxpaying public had no business getting these materials.

Well, to our surprise, Bill Clinton responded personally to our letter, saying it was a very interesting idea and that he was forwarding our suggestion to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for further study and response. OMB did nothing, did not even write to us.

Turning to the Internet-infatuated Congress, we twice wrote to the four Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate and the House the following words: “Isn’t it time for Congress to harness the power of the Internet to serve democracy? Access to the voting records of elected officials is a cornerstone of democracy. Yet Congress still has not put on the Internet a database of congressional votes, searchable by bill name, subject, title, Member name and so on. Why not? Why the foot-dragging in this area?”

Each member of the Senate and the House has a website. Wouldn’t you think that the member’s voting record, in understandable form, would be on there? Well, we cannot locate one member who gives citizens this fingertip access, even after writing all the members asking them if they provided this obviously important information.

Why don’t your Senators and representatives put their votes on their website? Because then you can judge their deeds, instead of having to rely on their rhetoric, their canned newsletters and media blurbs. A member who says he or she is for the environment (who isn’t?)

Would be exposed by votes cast for the polluting lobbies that finance their campaigns.

Thinking citizens need specific voting data about their legislators that they can think about, act on and engage.

Whether Senators Trent Lott, Tom Daschle nor Cong. Dennis Hastert or Cong. Dick Gephardt bothered to reply to our letters. We will now expand the effort to other members who may be more amenable to the idea of voting records on websites, such as Rep. Cynthia McKinney (Dem. Georgia), Edward Markey (Dem. Massachusetts), Christopher Shays (Rep. Connecticut) and to you-the taxpayers and voters of America.

If you wish to enlist in a winnable battle for Internet-placed voting records, write to Gary Ruskin, Congressional Accountability Project, 1611 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Suite 3A, Washington, D.C., 20009 or call 202-296-2787.

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