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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Congress Hides Their Votes

Members of Congress are continuing to play hide and seek with their legislative records. Only two Congressmen–Republican Representatives Christopher Shays of Connecticut and Frank Wolf of Virginia–have placed their voting records on the Internet in a searchable format easily accessible to citizens. Not a single U. S. Senator has been willing to use the Internet in a manner that would give voters an open, accurate and quick way to track their votes.
Thanks to the taxpayers, computers, equipped with Internet access, are available in the offices of every one of the 535 Members of the U. S. Senate and the House of Representatives. Posting voting records on their web sites in a searchable citizen-friendly format would be a simple task.

So, why the reluctance to implement something that would make it easy for voters to understand how their elected representatives were performing their official duties? After all, Members of Congress are famous for ringing “Fourth of July” pronouncements in favor of open government.

Flowery speeches about the public’s right to know notwithstanding, most members of Congress are guided by the age-old political rule: “what the voters don’t know can’t hurt you on election day.” If voters could pull up easy to read details on their computer screens about every vote a Senator or a Representative makes during a term, there might well be some very surprised voters and a lot of red-faced members of Congress in need of quick explanations.

This summer two members of my staff–Noel Dingboom and Mark Wittink–worked with Congressional interns in a survey of Senate and House offices to determine attitudes about the posting of voting records in asearchable format on the Internet. The answers were disappointing with most Members falling back on claims that votes were available on other Internet sites including those managed by various private organizations. Some of the explanations for the failure of Members to post their own records seemed to translate into something akin to “the constituents are too dumb to understand” an unvarnished straight-forward rendition of a Congressional voting record.

Reliance on private groups is tricky, at best. Most compile voting records in a manner to support their own policy positions. Others are very selective about the issues and votes they list. And Members of Congress have a long history of attempting to discredit as biased any group that publishes a voting record that makes their record look bad. The welter of competing voting records by private organizations often serve only to further mislead the public, and make it easier for politicians to spin a false picture of their performance.

It is true, as many offices cited, that the Library of Congress, through a service dubbed “Thomas,” carries votes in conjunction with its Internet tracking of activity on the floor of the House and Senate. The service is useful, but the process of extracting and compiling votes of individual Members from “Thomas” is too cumbersome and time consuming to be practical for most citizens. The same is true for the Congressional Record printed by the Government Printing Office. Unfortunately, sometimes Congress is able to rig the parliamentary procedures so that some items can slip through without a vote. One of these was a $4,900 raise for all Members which was allowed to go into effect earlier this month without a vote.

Representative Wolf, one of the two pro-voting record members of the House of Representatives, believes that the posting of how he votes onevery issue is one of his responsibilities as a Congressman. “I have always treated my office as a great public trust,” Wolf says “That includes letting the people I represent know how I have voted on all matters coming before Congress.”

The need for Congress to make voting records available in the widest and most accessible manner is heightened by the media’s failure to report individual votes on all but the most heavily publicized issues. Newspapers carry hundreds of column inches of stock market quotes, baseball box scores, horse racing statistics and long lists of guests at White House dinners and major social events. But, they deem it too difficult to compile and print the voting records of Members of Congress who decide the fate of legislation which has a significant effect on wide segments of the population.

It is little wonder that frequently fewer than 40 percent of the eligible voters turn out in biennial elections to select their Senators and Representatives. And millions of those who do arrive at the polls have only the most surface information about what their sitting Senator or Representative has been doing in Washington. Incumbents like to keep it that way. That’s one of the big reasons Members of Congress aren’t rushing to the computer to set up searchable voting record compilations on their web sites. Most of them think that their self-serving newsletters provide all the information that the voters need to know about how they are performing in Washington.

Information is the oxygen of democracy. It is also the basic ingredient that builds and maintains confidence and accountability in government. At a minimum, citizens have a right to know in detail the positions that their representatives take on legislation. Congress should adopt a rule which would require that all Members list their voting record on the Internet in an easily accessed searchable format by Member name, bill subject and bill title.This would be a giant step forward in efforts to ensure an informed electorate–and a more accountable Congress. Citizens should contact their Senators and Representatives and ask why this isn’t being done. They can be reached through the Capitol switchboard–202-224-3121 for Senators; 202 225-3121 for Representatives.