Rashomon on the Hill: Why Every House Committee Has Two Websites

Online policies adopted in the 20th century give the public only partisan takes on what their representatives are up to.

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Updated, 12:31 p.m.

The state of U.S. congressional committees online suggests an addendum to Daniel Patrick Moynihan's famous aphorism that everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts: If you are in hot pursuit of your own facts, it helps to have your own website.

Let's say you're your average interested citizen looking to see how the vote turned out from this week's House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform meeting on the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives' controversial gun-running operation. The committee directory at House.gov points you to the official committee site, Oversight.House.gov, where the headline reads, "They Knew: New Documents Reveal When Top Obama Officials Knew About Fast & Furious." You happen to notice a little blue beveled button in the upper right-hand corner marked "Minority." Click that, and you get pushed to Democrats.Oversight.House.gov, where the headline is this: "Dissenting Views on Holder Contempt Citation: Irresponsible, Unprecedented, and Contrary to the Rule of Law."

Two sites. One operated by Chairman Darrell Issa, the other operated by Ranking Member Elijah Cummings. One run by Republicans, the other run by Democrats.

From inside Washington, D.C., it seems natural. There are two teams on each committee, and they each get their own site. Isn't that a little confusing for everyone else?

Inside D.C., it's simply the way things are done. In the House, the sites are governed by the "Committee Handbook," a document that details everything from how you go about hiring interns to the process by which committee offices are outfitted with drapes. Asked about the dueling websites, a staffer with the Committee on House Administration pointed me to the section called "Web Site Regulations." It reads, in relevant part, "The minority and subcommittees shall be entitled to a separate page that is linked to and accessible only from the committee's Web page." In one rare case, a House committee has actually chosen to host a joint site: Ethics. But in every other instance -- that is to say, for the 21 full committees of the House -- Republicans and Democrats go it alone. Some majority sites give prominent billing to the minority ones. Appropriations and Armed Services link to their minority counterparts through tabs on their main navigation bars, for example.

Often, though, it's glaringly apparent that the Committee's leaders are fulfilling the letter of what their minority is entitled to by House Regulation, and that's it. Witness the comically small link reading "Democrats' site" buried in the footer of the Committee on Education and the Workforce's site. It's of a size and placement generally reserved for copyright notices.

"I really haven't thought about it," said Aaron Albright, communications director for the House Education committee's Democratic staff, when I point out the miniscule amount of real estate Democrats are allotted on the official committee site. "It's the way that it's been since I've been here for the last five and a half years," he said. The Democrats, it should be noted, return the favoring, burying a "Majority Link" in their own footer. A spokesperson for the Committee on House Administration's Democratic side told me that he can't recall anyone complaining about getting shunted to the margins of their majority's site. It's the sort of thing, he said, that would probably get settled within the committee, hashed out between Democratic and Republican staffs.

The Education Committee's Albright has his own reasons for not worrying. While the circa-1999 House regulations might stipulate that the minority's web "page" must only be accessible from the majority's web "page," tell that to the Internet. "With the way the Web works, people generally aren't going to front pages," says Albright. "Google has revolutionized people's ability to find the information they want."

A look over at the Senate side reveals a different way of operating. Of the 16 full committees of the United States Senate, three offer simple splash pages with little action except for the option to select either, as the Senate Budget Committee renders it, a "Democratic (Majority) Website" or a "Republican (Minority) Website." Several other committees operate a common site that hosts hearing schedules, pending legislation, video archives, and other shared materials central to the workings of the committee, and then offer a chance to get partisan perspectives in separate home-page news streams; "From Senator Harkin" and "From Senator Enzi" are co-equal columns on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions site, for example. But many Senate committees–Agriculture, Armed Services, Banking, Finance, Judiciary, Rules–offer just a single, unified site, with just press releases occasionally marked either for the majority or minority.

It's no surprise that there are warmer digital relations on the Senate side, said Brad Fitch, president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation. For a decade, CMF has been awarding Gold Mouse Awards to the best websites on Capitol Hill. Some of the difference between the House and Senate approaches is a reflection of "the personalities and relationships between the chairman and the ranking member," says Fitch, pointing to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Chair Jeff Bingaman and Ranking Member Lisa Murkowski get along both offline and on. Same for Max Baucus and Chuck Grassley (Finance) and Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins (Homeland Security). "It's one of the last bastions of bipartisanship that does exist where at least they can agree about how they're going to present information on the committee," says Fitch.

It makes sense that the ruling party would aim to keep the weaker party down when it comes to online space. While a polite airing of 'minority views' is fine, that's as far as it need go.

On the other hand, while Barbara Boxer and James Inhofe can make peace on highway projects and the like, they're at each other's throats on climate change. Go to their Committee on Environment and Public Works site, and you are immediately asked to pick: Boxer's way or Inhofe's.

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Nancy Scola is a writer based in New York. She has written for New York, Salon, and Seed, and is a frequent contributor to The American Prospect.

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