Congressional Websites Outdated
David All and Paul Blumenthal have an interesting piece in The Hill arguing that Congressional Web sites are way behind the Web 2.0 wave because of outdated restrictions.
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.
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.
Some Members are making innovative use of their sites, so the rules can’t be the main problem. Indeed, under All’s direction, his former boss, Jack Kingston, added a blog, podcasts, and other outreach programs to connect with his constituents to his site. And if some Members are posting schedules, disclosure forms, and the like on their site, it’s likely that the reason others aren’t is that they either don’t want to be that transparent or don’t feel it’s worth the use of staff time.
Further, to the extent the rules do stymie making full use of Web 2.0, couldn’t Members simply start a personal or campaign website, paid for out of personal or campaign coffers, to get around these restrictions? Using rules created in 1996 for governing the Internet is silly, I agree, but the spirit of ensuring that Member Web sites aren’t taxpayer-funded campaign contributions is reasonable enough.