The Government Domain: New House Website and Open House Project

Table of Contents

New House
  • Leadership
  • Committees
  •                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Open House Project

    New House

    January 2007 marked the first change in party leadership for the U.S. House of Representatives since the dawn of the World Wide Web era on Capitol Hill. Newt Gingrich, who led the Republican takeover of the House after 40 years of a Democratic majority, ushered the House into the Internet age in 1995. Over the past 12 years, web technology and the House website have both evolved and advanced, as have web user sophistication and expectations. What can we expect from the new majority?

    The most noticeable change for the 110th Congress, before we get down to the sub-site level, is a more visually pleasing home page. The site has more content above the fold. It is also more accessible for the visually impaired, with an adjustable font size and a link to the Browsealoud web browser plug-in.

    The House website in August 2006, courtesy of the Internet Archive.


     

    The new House website, February 2007


     

    If you have been using the House website from the beginning of the 110th Congress, you know the transition at the levels below the home page has not been entirely smooth. That is to be expected. But it is February now, and it is time to take a tour of the new House leadership and committee sites. Although Members’ individual websites can be great resources in certain instances, the leadership and committee sites typically carry more substantive information for tracking legislation.

    Leadership

    Speaker Nancy Pelosi has retained the same URL for the Speaker of the House site used by the Republicans, speaker.house.gov. The House sets an example for the Senate to follow in this regard; Senate leaders’ websites are the same as their personal office websites, so the URLs change with each change in leadership. The House Speaker’s site also has not changed in the type of content carried—broad vision statements and issue positions, photos, and press releases.

    As have the Speaker and other Democratic leaders, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer has inherited the Republican leadership’s web address, www.majorityleader.gov. The minority gets the new http://republicanleader.house.gov address. Most of the research resources on the Majority Leader’s site are links to content that originates elsewhere, but I discovered one unique resource: the PDF monthly planner, replete with event anniversaries, economic indicator release dates, and House schedule information. The site for Minority Leader offers current news and email alerts but some sections, such as the Daily Wrap-Up and Calendar are still frozen in time (November 2006) as of early February.

    In the past, the Majority Whip’s site has been the most useful leadership site for tracking House activities. Followers of Congress had become accustomed to the Republican Majority Whip’s weekly Whip Notice and daily Whipping Post emails listing the anticipated floor schedule. These services still exist, now moved over the Minority Whip site. The new Majority Whip site appears to be just getting up to speed. The site has a Daily Whipline in an attractive format with direct links to bill information on THOMAS but, as of early February, it is not yet available for automatic email delivery.

    Committees

    Committees and subcommittees have been updating their web pages as they get organized and begin work. The Joint Economic Committee and Joint Committee on Printing have not established sites yet, but all House standing committees and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence are online. The committee sites show dramatic progress away from the committee recalcitrance and individualism in the early days of the House website. There is a degree of consistency in style, for starters. Take a look at the banners and menus for the Committees on Natural Resources, Energy and Commerce, and Transportation and Infrastructure below.

    Committee on Natural Resources


     

    Energy and Commerce


     

    House Transportation and lnfrastructure


     


    The core content on the sites is relatively uniform as well: information on full committee and subcommittee jurisdiction and membership; the committee’s schedule; committee documents such as reports, hearings transcripts, and possibly committee rules and oversight plans; press releases and photos; and a link to the website for the minority (Republican) committee members. Also, none of the sites provides an easy link back to the House home page; what’s up with that? Another example of consistency: the Oversight and Government Reform Committee has an online form for citizens to report the “waste, fraud, and abuse of taxpayer dollars”; the minority site has a similar form. (The two sides discovered they each had the same online service in the course of a full committee hearing, delighting writers for Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart Daily Show with an ironic example of government waste.)

    There are relatively few committee documents to be found this early in the session so, in my tour of committee sites, I focused on the offerings of hearings transcripts and automatic alert services (email or RSS). Online hearings information still varies from committee to committee. The most common offerings are copies of the witnesses’ prepared testimony submitted to the committee in advance of the hearing and live webcasts of the hearings. Variations include live audio and archived audio and video. Citizens wishing to know exactly what was said at a House committee hearing that they can’t view live must, in most cases, turn to costly commercial services such as Federal News Service or wait months or years for the hearing to be printed by the Government Printing Office.

    The new majority has also made little advancement in the offering of email or RSS current awareness services on committee websites. While all legislative committees have some sort of content—such as press releases, schedule updates, and document releases—that is perfect for an alert service, most of the majority’s committee sites currently offer no email subscriptions or RSS feeds. A few have one or the other. The Financial Services Committee and the Oversight and Government Reform Committee offer both.

    Open House Project

    As I said, it’s early in the session, and I’m hoping the leadership and committees will provide more information and services before the session ends. One reason for hope is the Sunlight Foundation’s announcement this week that they have launched a collaborative Open House Project. According to the press release:

    The purpose of the project is to study how the House of Representatives currently integrates the internet into its operations, and to make public recommendations to its leadership on how to make the House of Representatives’ work more available to citizens on the Web.
    The Open House Project is run by a temporary working group. Quoting from their website, they hope to accomplish the following in the next few months:
    • Produce a report with a series of recommendations in late March on how Congress can open its business to the public
    • Foster a discussion with Members, staffers, and institutional stakeholders on a more open Congress
    • Foster a discussion with the public on a more open Congress

    The encouraging news is that Speaker Pelosi is aware of and endorses the project. The endorsement is featured in the Sunlight Foundation press release:
    "The Internet is an incredible vehicle for transparency, honest leadership and open government," said Speaker Pelosi, in response to the project's launch. "I am encouraged by this working group and look forward to recommendations on how the House can be as open and accessible to citizens as possible."
    The Open House website has a blog on its home page and a wiki in progress. The Open House wiki links to a related wiki, the Congressional Committees Project that originated from dialog on the popular political blog Daily Kos. (For more background, take a look at their About page.) The Committees Project is new to me, and I am looking forward to exploring their wiki and the Open House wiki as soon as I finish this column.