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.
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.
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.
Of course, the Senate is designed to encourage greater comity; the House was built to be contentious, what with its elections every two years and winner-take-all rules. 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. But amongst those out of power, a realization has developed over the last decade that when the offline House has you stymied, the web can be a powerful place. More than just dry information, it can be a political asset.
Back in 2008, there was a battle in the House when administrators belatedly took away a domain called EarmarkReform.House.gov being championed by then Minority Leader John Boehner on the grounds that it constituted sloganeering. (Republicans pointed out that the Democrats' GlobalWarming.House.gov was itself a bit rah-rah.) And with the small slice of institutional power they do have, committee ranking members can hope to build up the sort of audience that makes them competitive with the party in power. You can begin to see why Republicans might not be eager to put a flashing 40-point link to their Democratic counterparts' sites—or to call them "Democrats" rather than the power-dynamic-affirming "Minority."
The diminishing of the other side goes both ways. A trip through the Wayback Machine suggests that majority links to minority sites have shrunk over the years. And Democrats have done it, too: see if you can find the small link on House Education site's link to "Republican Views" back when Democrat George Miller was chair.
So what are other options? One is to go the route of the Joint Committee on Taxation. The JCT is a unique House-Senate hybrid whose site reflects neither a Republican nor Democratic orientation. The JCT is also a completely non-partisan body staffed by PhD-level economists, lawyers, and accountants. Next!
The Congressional Management Foundation's Fitch suggests doing away with the fiction that there's really any one committee for a website to represent. There are two committee websites because, well, there really are two committees. The focus should be on making clear at all times whose views are being expressed. The audience for these sites, argues Fitch, tends towards the "sophisticated citizen or stakeholder who knows how Washington works." He went on. "If it's clear who's talking, the savvy citizen should be able to navigate themselves through." That might mean clearly labeling for majority or minority. But it also might mean the more radical admission that, generally, it's one voice being expressed. There might be 22 other Republicans on the Committee on Government Oversight and Chairman Darrell Issa's name appears nowhere on the homepage. But it's his fiefdom, really. It's how the committee system works. "A majority committee website is the chairman's website. It's not a democracy," he says with a laugh. "The chairman runs the committee." So the alternative would be to make that plain: "The Committee on Oversight and Government Reform—A Darrell Issa Joint."
For his part, Fitch would rather focus on the fact that your average interested citizen who goes looking for official information on the work of Congress on committee sites often isn't going to find it. He points to a recent CMF report that found that three-quarters of congressional committees don't post hearing transcripts. A quarter don't webcast their hearings or make their own committee rules available. "When you consider that in the House of Representatives most of the action happens at the committee level, and we have eight out of ten sites not providing voting information?" asked Fitch. "In 2012, that's a little abysmal."