Thomas is not a tool for reforming Congress

By Robert Gellman

Thomas, the Library of Congress Internet service for legislative information ( ), opened last year to glowing
reviews. More recently, it has been criticized for failing to live up to House Speaker
Newt Gingrich's promise to provide citizens with key information about Congress at the
same moment that the information is available to the highest-paid Washington lobbyist.

Anyone who wants to complain that a politician is not keeping a promise is welcome to
do so, but let's be a bit more realistic. Gingrich deserves credit for expanding
congressional information on line. Certainly more can be done. The Library plans to offer
committee schedules, provide some context for available data and perhaps post some hearing
materials. This is fine, but it is not easy or inexpensive.

Thomas users must have reasonable expectations. Thomas is not a tool for reforming the
way that Congress operates. Some complained that the so-called "chairman's
marks" are not available on Thomas. When a committee marks up a bill, the chairman
may offer an amendment in the nature of a substitute. This is the chairman's mark, but it
is just an amendment. Usually, any member can offer any amendment in committee. The
chairman gets to go first.

Critics argued that these amendments were available to lobbyists but not on Thomas.
Tough. Congressional rules do not require advance disclosure to the committee, other
members or the Net. A member can show an amendment to anyone or to no one. It is the
member's choice.

Does this give insiders an advantage? Welcome to the real world. If advance notice of
committee amendments were required, markups would take weeks. An amendment to an amendment
would force a recess. Nothing would ever get done.

The recently passed telecommunication reform bill sparked a similar complaint. Some
wanted the final vote delayed until the conference report was available on Thomas for 10
days. That is unrealistic. After a decade of work, Congress finally reached consensus, and
consensus is a fleeting thing. Congress acts when the will, the votes and the members are

Don't be fooled by the 10-day proposal. It came from those who didn't like the bill and
didn't have the votes. Remember when Congress passed legislation to reopen the government?
Did anyone want that vote delayed while the text was put on line?

Thomas information is necessarily unfiltered. There are no editorials or evaluations.
It's like watching Congress on C-Span. No one tells you what is really happening; you have
to figure it out yourself. If you want someone to separate the wheat from the chaff, read
a newspaper or join an advocacy group.

Still, someone complained that Thomas requires mastery of Boolean operators. So do most
other computer systems. If you can't figure out the difference between and and or,
how are you going to understand the manner in which Paragraph (a)(2)(F)(4) in Section 209
of one bill amends Section 3005(g)(9) of some public law? Give me a break.

It is easy to understand the motives of those who want to make the Net a central
feature of the legislative process. Net activists want to increase their own political
influence. They want to sit at terminals, be spoon fed legislative data and change the
world by sending e-mail messages to Capitol Hill. That is not going to happen any time
soon. Having an Internet account does not entitle you a vote on the floor of the House.

Networks make it easier to organize constituencies and to lobby. But Congress is not
going to structure itself for the convenience of the Net. Congressional offices are not
yet able to process thousands of e-mail messages a day, and it may be years before they

Don't take any of the glowing electronic democracy oratory too seriously. Net users
just make up another special interest. They demand more federal spending for their pet
project without regard to the constraints that apply to other government activities, such
as cost and consequence. Let's keep it all in perspective. The majority of the public will
never use legislative materials on line.

Thomas can and should be improved. But Congress has cut its own budget, and new cuts
are likely in the future. More for Thomas means less for other information activities
funded from legislative appropriations. The tradeoffs are real.

Speaker Gingrich's promise that everyone will be as well connected as Washington
insiders was empty political rhetoric. It never will be fulfilled, and no one really
expected otherwise. Thomas is a pretty good service right now. Maybe more of its users
should say "thank you."

------ Robert Gellman, former chief counsel to the House Government Operations
Subcommittee on Information, Justice, Transportation and Agriculture, is a Washington
privacy and information policy consultant. His e-mail address is 

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