Congress on the Net

The thousands of reports, transcripts and draft texts of legislation that Congress generates could become available to the public on the Internet after the House convenes in January, Hill aides say. But nobody's willing to be more specific about what will be posted, or when.

Rep. Rick A. White, R-Wash., has been lobbying the House Republican leadership to change House rules and provide for more public access to congressional documents on line as part of the administrative reform package the leadership traditionally introduces on the opening day of the session, Connie J. Correll, an aide to White, said.

White introduced legislation earlier this year that listed a dozen types of documents--including copies of prepared testimony and texts of proposed bills--that could be made available to the public electronically; the bill didn't make it out of committee, however.

As for the on-line provision in the opening-day reform package, "We'll ask for everything, and we probably won't get it. But we're hoping for something," Correll said.

In a related development, Rep. William M. Thomas, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, has requested that the Congressional Research Service (CRS) report to him by the end of January on the feasibility of making its documents available to the public on line. CRS documents are available electronically, but only Members of Congress have access to them, an agency spokeswoman said.

Internet access to the CRS's issue briefings and legislative reports is critical, on-line activists say, because the documents often serve as the basis for committee action. "CRS does generic research on pending legislation. That research would be very useful to citizens so they can figure out what these bills mean and whether or not they as citizens ought to support the bills," said Gary Ruskin, director of the Congressional Accountability Project, a Washington-based on-line advocacy group.

If Congress wants to make CRS reports available to the public, both the House and the Senate, which share oversight of the CRS, would have to change the agency's legal mandate. "We have to wait to see what CRS says," William A. Pierce, Thomas's press secretary, said. "But clearly this is an issue that we have to work on with the Senate."

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