Since the birth of the internet, Congress has enacted a variety of legislation dealing with how the public uses the internet. These range from the regulation of internet gambling to net neutrality to the discussion of the internet kill switch[i]. Clearly, Congress is concerned with how the American people are using the internet.
But what about our Congressmen and Senators themselves? That is the subject of this essay, where a variety of questions will be asked about the relationship between Congress and the Internet. These questions are: how do Congressmen use the internet, was Congress fast or slow to adopt the use of the internet, and has the development of the internet played a major role in political campaigning? A survey of several pieces of literature reveals not only the nature of Congress’s use of the internet, but raises important questions regarding both the timing and future of its use.
First, a brief history of the internet. This is important because it provides a general framework for us to consider these questions about Congress. Its origins date back to 1969, when the Department of Defense had four computers connected[ii]. After years of development, it entered widespread public use between 1994 and 1995[iii].
Now, let us look at the history of the use of the internet by members of Congress. The internet came to Congress in 1995[iv]. This owes much to the efforts of then Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich[v]. His efforts resulted in the inauguration of a number of computer systems through which Congressmen could communicate with each other and the public. They include making it mandatory for committees to make information available online, and THOMAS (Thomas.loc.gov), which provides, “bill summaries and status updates, committee reports, the Congressional Record, etc. to both the public and Congressmen”[vi]. A couple of years later, the U.S. Senate set up the Legislative Information Retrieval System[vii]. The immediate result of all these efforts was that:
By the spring of 1996, 117 members and 58 Senators maintained sites on the internet. By the spring of 1997, 240 House members and 83 Senators were on the internet. By the end of 1999, 432 House members maintained internet sites, along with all 100 members of the U.S. Senate[viii].
This is an amazing transformation to have occurred in sixteen years. Why emphasize that Congress has been utterly transformed in such a short period of time? The research uncovered an interesting fact about Congress. It has traditionally been very reluctant to adopt new technologies. This point is emphasized in Congress and the Internet: Highlights. In the 1870’s, Thomas Edison believed that his idea to install electronic voting machines in Congress would be readily accepted[ix]. Instead, it was defeated by a vote of 86 to 82[x]. Why did this happen? When he made a similar appeal to this Massachusetts State legislator, he was shut down because it was felt his machine would interfere with the minority’s ability to delay legislation[xi]. The same could be said of Congress. As the article points out about Congress’s attitude:
Change often brings in its wake both pluses and minuses and has the potential to change the distribution of influence within Congress. Before lawmakers sign on to change, they want to know: Who stands to win or lose power with the new technology? Are there electoral risks associated with its use? What are its costs and benefits? Will Members become too dependent on the technology? How long will it be before the technology becomes obsolete?[xii]
It would take 100 years before electronic voting was used in the House[xiii]. Similar obstacles were faced by television. Congressional hearings were not televised till the 1970’s, the argument being that people would use their presence as an opportunity to grandstand (those who thought that are probably laughing right now)[xiv].
Why then, was the internet adopted relatively quickly? The article “The Rise of the Cyber-Legislator: Congress and the Internet in the Last 20th Century” emphasizes the role that leaders played in pushing its use through. So many innovations were brought to Congress because the Speaker of the House pushed. The beginning of the article states that the entire study that formed the meat of the material showed that “Ideological extremists and party leaders are consistently more embracing of the internet’s essential characteristics: a national focus and the provision of links to outside sites”[xv]. This suggests the technological revolution moved at a quicker pace in part because it was a top-down approach, rather than a grassroots, which would have had to contend with established interests. Also perhaps, it’s in part because we live in a far more technological society. While it was 100 years before electronic voting was used in Congress, it was only about 60 from the invention of television[xvi]. There seems to be a natural lessoning of the time technology spends outside of Congress. Perhaps then, the internet is simply at some level the inheritor of the trend of increasing technology and new innovations coming out and being accepted sooner.
Thus, we have covered the introduction of Internet use into Congress. However, there are still the questions regarding how Congressmen use the internet in Congress and during campaigns. Congress and the Internet: Highlights brings up that “both the House and
Senate prohibit Members from using electronic devices on the floor for concern that
they would disrupt the deliberative process”[xvii]. In addition to responding to emails, the article spoke greatly of the rising use of the internet to communicate directly with voters and “virtual town halls”[xviii]. It does seem to emphasize that only a few have done this so far, indicating that we are actually on the threshold of realizing the internet’s potential for Congressmen rather than living in the middle of it[xix].
And as for campaigns, the effect also seems to be small for the moment. It should be emphasized that “26% of Americans mention the internet either first or second as their main source of election news”[xx]. This figure comes from an article talking about how traditional sources of news are declining, but still used by the majority for issues related to elections[xxi]. Overall, as a tool to communicate with constituents, the internet does not seem to have reached its full potential.
In conclusion, what can we tell about Congress and the Internet? Despite traditional hostility towards the internet, top-down pressure resulted in the mass and relatively fast introduction of the internet to the halls of Congress. As can be gathered from the fact that so many parts of Congress place their proceedings online, a sort of transparency does seem to have been enforced[xxii]. Still, the full potential of the internet has yet to be realized by our leaders. That is something we should probably expect to see in the coming years.
[i] “Internet Gambling Curbs Enacted”, In J. Austin (Ed.), CQ almanac 2006 (62nd ed.), Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, 2007, URL: http://library.cqpress.com/congress/cqal06-1421279;
“Net Neutrality”, New York Times, 2010, URL: http://topics.nytimes.com/topics/reference/timestopics/subjects/n/net_neutrality/index.html; Bianca Bosker, “Internet ‘Kill Switch’ Approved By Senate Homeland Security Committee”, Huffington Post, 06/25/10, updated 08/25/10, URL: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/06/25/internet-kill-switch-appr_n_625856.html
[xxi] “Internet’s Broader Role in Campaign 2008 Social Networking and Online Videos Take Off”