Thomas' promises unfulfilled, users of House Web site complain

Heralded eight months ago as the people's information
superhighway ramp to Congress, the House's Thomas World Wide Web site is getting mediocre
grades from users.


Although generally popular, serving nearly 1 million users each month since its January
launch, Thomas fails to allow those outside the Beltway equal access to political
insiders, users said.


"If I wanted to educate the public about what has already happened, it's very
helpful in that regard," said Anthony Pharr, counsel for the Office of Communications
for the United Church of Christ, which lobbies on communications issues. "It gives me
a picture of what has happened--but not to influence what will happen."


Those outside Washington can get bill information as a "historical matter, but
they can't get it in order to participate, and that's what Thomas was supposed to
do," said David G. Hawkins of the Natural Resources Defense Council, which lobbies on
environmental issues.


The Library of Congress and House Speaker Newt Gingrich unveiled the site in January [GCN,
Jan. 23, Page 8]. Named after Thomas Jefferson, it has drawn praise as a good first step
because it allows people to find the full text of House bills.


But some materials are posted long after action has occurred--sometimes not at all,
users have found. "Right now Thomas is more a promise than it is something
delivered," Hawkins said.


A Gingrich spokesman promised that the services would improve.


With Thomas, it is virtually impossible to track the ongoing changes in a bill, said
Marjorie Power, a Montpelier, Vt., City Council member.


"When you're out here in the boonies, you're behind the eight ball. You can't keep
up," she said. "The thing will suddenly pop out of committee, and there will be
things you won't like and things you do like."


Without marked-up versions of bills being considered, it's almost impossible to know
where and why changes occurred, she said, and it's difficult to react.


"We've been pretty supportive of the thing," said James Love, director of the
Taxpayer Assets Project, an organization backed by consumer advocate Ralph Nader.
"But what you've got out there hasn't changed that much" since the House
launched the Web site.


"The public thinks that they're getting the same access that the lobbyist
has," but they aren't, he said.


Most agree that more detailed information is available elsewhere, but at a price.
Private legislation tracking services include Legislate, run by the Washington Post Co.;
Washington Alert from Congressional Quarterly; and Lexis-Nexis, operated by GCN's parent
Reed-Elsevier Corp. These services are costly and beyond the reach of most taxpayers.


The Taxpayer Assets Project and the Congressional Accountability Project have been
joined by 650 other people pushing for broader on-line access to the legislative process.


"Your promise to provide on-line access to congressional documents still remains
unfulfilled," the group said in an Aug. 22 letter to Rep. Gingrich (R-Ga.).


The letter writers proposed that Thomas have committee prints of bills as they are
updated, Federal Election Commission reports, committee reports, voting records of
congressional members, amendments, Congressional Research Service reports and verbatim
hearing transcripts.


Gingrich spokesman John Cox said Thomas is still a work in progress. "People at
the library are working aggressively to make available all of the items mentioned in the
letter," Cox said.


"Everyone is working under the "soon-as-possible' timeframe," he said,
although no specific timetable has been set.


The overall project has been slowed by the move to link Senate documents into the
Thomas system. "That has expanded the scope of the project significantly," Cox
said.


Congressional Democrats also see the existing services provided by Thomas as a first
step.


"What it has begun to do, it does well," said one Senate Democrat staffer
involved with linking lawmakers to the Internet. "The path of Congress getting on
line and getting wired, while it's been coming slow, is catching up," the staffer
said.


One of the most recurring criticisms of Thomas is that it does not provide interim
versions of bills, especially as they move through congressional committees and
subcommittees.


Thomas is especially inadequate in terms of providing access to documents that
"the Beltway insiders have because of their ability to get those documents
early," Hawkins said.


A Democratic House staff member, involved with creating her boss's Web page, suggested
it is often difficult for anyone to track legislation that closely.


"I'm not sure anyone is able to keep up with things as fast as they are
moving," she said. "Sometimes we don't even know what the committee is doing
until the committee is done."


In a comment that mirrored many people's opinions, Tim A. Heller, president of the
Young Republicans of Omaha, Neb., said Thomas makes information available that would be
difficult to obtain otherwise. "I'd just like to see more information
available," he said.


Thomas' address is http://thomas.loc.gov.
 


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