By Winter Casey
October 4, 2006Those who hope to use the power of the Internet to engage the public in helping influence government action should consider choosing an issue that has bipartisan appeal and excites the public interest, Internet and media experts said Wednesday.
They gathered at the Heritage Foundation to discuss how authors of Republican and Democratic Web logs this summer influenced the passage of legislation aimed at creating a Google-like search tool for the government.
On Sept. 26, President Bush signed into law a bill, S. 2590, that calls for the White House Office of Management and Budget to create a free search engine and database to track an estimated $1 trillion in federal grants and contracts.
Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., one of the measure's co-sponsors, said at a briefing in September that blogs showed some of their power in pushing the measure forward. "This is a bill that passed precisely because of grassroots support," he said.
The bill faced anonymous procedural "holds" that delayed a Senate vote. News of the holds animated the blogosphere, which worked to expose the senators behind them, Democrat Robert Byrd of West Virginia and Republican Ted Stevens of Alaska.
N.Z. Bear of The Truth Laid Bear and Porkbusters said the reason the bill inspired the blogosphere was because it was so "obviously a good thing" for all ideologies. Bear said bloggers harnessed the power of the public to call lawmakers' offices about the holds. The blogs "did try to motivate the public" and it became "fun and entertaining" for people to participate, he said.
"It wasn't the blogs that made this happen but facilitated it happening," Bear said.
Rebecca Carr, a national correspondent for Cox Newspapers, said bloggers exposed the secretive nature of Congress. The public felt disenfranchised about the Senate's legislative process, she said. Carr noted that government transparency issues and corruption are bipartisan problems.
Mark Tapscott from The Washington Examiner, who also blogs at Tapscott's Copy Desk, said the Internet gives the public the power to focus all its talents simultaneously. He also noted that lawmakers may want to take more steps to use the Internet to interact with the public.
The forthcoming database is going to work because blogs will be watching, Tapscott added. OMB already has solicited bloggers' help with other initiatives, too, according to GovExec.com.
Bear noted that "it is becoming much more difficult for politicians to say something completely wrong and get away with it."
Responding to reports this week that Google CEO Eric Schmidt envisions an Internet where users could instantly check whether a statement made by a politician is true or false, Bear said he is skeptical of "magic technology." But blogs and other Internet tools do give people more power, he said, and the tools will only become easier to use.
By Winter Casey
October 4, 2006