Monday, June 23, 2003

Congress Online: Much Sizzle, Little Steak

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company
June 24, 2003

Congress Online: Much Sizzle, Little Steak


WASHINGTON, June 23 — By now, almost every representative and every senator in Congress has a Web site. The sites offer a cornucopia of personal and hometown lore, in most cases virtually everything except what becomes legends most: their voting records.

For example, Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Republican of Colorado, bursts from his home page in a leather jacket, showing off his motorcycle, which is decorated with stars and stripes. Senators John B. Breaux and Mary L. Landrieu, Louisiana Democrats, give links to recipes for down-home Southern cooking.

None of these sites disclose the lawmakers' votes. And these sites are the rule.

A New York Times analysis of the Web sites has found that only 11 percent of senators and 40 percent of representatives provided some kind of information about their voting records, either a partial list of their major votes or a link to a vote-listing service. Many list their opinions, the bills they have sponsored and press releases. Only one senator, Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, provides her complete voting record.

Surveys by other groups suggest a strong desire by citizens to see the voting records of their lawmakers. Extensive work has been done on this subject by the Congress Online Project, a program financed by the Pew Charitable Trusts to improve electronic communication between members of Congress and the public. In addition, Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate, has organized Congressional interns to prod their bosses to post their voting records on their Web sites. Focus groups told the Pew researchers that they were not interested in every vote but wanted know the important ones.

The Times analysis found that besides Senator Feinstein's, the model sites were those of two Republican representatives, Christopher Shays of Connecticut and Frank R. Wolf of Virginia. Links to their voting records are heralded prominently on their home pages.

Others offer links to services like the Library of Congress's Thomas service (, Project Vote Smart ( or, which can direct viewers to individual votes.

Some legislators are overhauling their sites to provide such links. Senator Breaux, for example, is in the midst of a redesign. His spokesman, Brian Weiss, said it would include a link to the Thomas service.

Some sites are so poorly designed that even when a link is available, it is not easy to find. Nothing on the site of Senator Daniel K. Akaka, Democrat of Hawaii, who appears on his home page with a green lei around his neck, refers to his voting record. Only by clicking on "links" and then stumbling into "federal government" — not the obvious repository for a voting record — can one then click on and find a vote by navigating from there.

Paul Cardus, Senator Akaka's press secretary, said the site was being updated and would probably add a direct link and call it "voting record" to take the viewer to Thomas.

Some Web pages offer no links at all. Representative Richard A. Gephardt, the Missouri Democrat who is running for president, does not list his votes on his fairly limited House Web site or on his flashier campaign site. His spokesman, Erik Smith, said he knew of no demand for the votes but thought that listing them might be a good idea.

Critics like Mr. Nader say that while the links to services can help find a vote or two, trying to compile a voting record by year and by issue from these links is cumbersome, confusing and time-consuming.

Mr. Nader says some members are trying to obscure their votes.

Others take a more benign view. Brad Fitch, deputy director of the Congressional Management Foundation, which helped with the Congress Online Project, said many members were just getting up to speed with online technology.

"There is a learning curve," Mr. Fitch said.

He said some members had told him they did not provide quick access to their voting records because they did not want to do the research for their challengers back home.

Mr. Fitch says he responds like this: "I tell these members that I'm letting them in on a little secret — that the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee have computers, and this information is available."

He added: "The only thing a member does by not providing this information is send the wrong message to constituents. You're inviting them to go someplace else, and that's a lost opportunity, from a political and a communication standpoint."

It is not clear, however, that all lawmakers are behind the technology curve. Representative Wolf said he started making his voting record available by newsletter as soon as he was elected to Congress in 1980; an opponent had told voters they could "look up" his record, so Mr. Wolf promised to send his record out.

He adapted to the Internet without difficulty and lends his assistant to help others set up sites.

"It's like opening up a book," Mr. Wolf said. "You want everything to be there. And of course your votes should be. Ye shall know them by their fruits, they say, and our votes are our fruits."

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company