Notes From The Net - October 1996

Politics, Political Action and the Web

by Stephen M. Pribut, D.P.M., F.A.C.F.A.S.

One month before election day is an excellent time to take a look at political resources on the Internet. This is the first time that a presidential election is taking place with a presence on the World Wide Web. Political candidates, news resources, and government agencies have all rushed onto the Internet in the past two years. This is one of the most rapid changes in the way information about our legislature is disseminated. The revolutionary nature of this change rivals that of the printing press as a means of enhancing information flow. The ponderous bureaucracy of government has suddenly rendered vast amounts of material instantly available to millions. These readily accessible online resources include the full text of bills, the Federal Register, Congressional Record, selected committee reports, and even the U.S. code. Legislators have their own home pages highlighting their speeches, committees they serve on, and frequently have information on their home states available by hypertext links.

Independent organizations such as "Project Vote Smart" (http://vote-smart.org/) have thorough databases of political activity. You can even find your representative by zip code. Voting records are readily available, sorted by bill number and issue. Lists of committee membership, political biographies and information on campaign finances are available. Project Vote Smart also lists many organizational ratings of your legislator. Their National Political Awareness Test is distributed to all candidates for state and national office. The emphasis is on positive steps a candidate would take to solve a variety of problems. It is issue and action oriented and is definitely worth looking at before this year's election. All state and national campaigns are expected to be covered. There are biographies here of not only national legislators but also those of your state assembly members.

The power of the Internet is in its use as a source of obtaining information and rapidly transmitting it. For political action its value is only beginning to be realized. The current ease of an individual or a group to become informed about issues via the Internet is unparalleled. You can quickly check the voting record of your favorite legislator and see who has funded their campaigns. You can look to see how almost any rating system has ranked them. If they have introduced a bill into Congress, you can track it via the House or Senate web sites. You can read and save the full text of the bill. Debates can be followed by searching the online Congressional Record. Rules and regulations that are published in the Federal Register can also be read and saved.

The Internet is a remarkable facilitator of the democratic process by virtue of its intrinsic capability to enable the free flow of information. As we have discussed, a group can readily access and share information on the issues that affect them. PPAC, the APMA and other groups should easily be able to use this medium to distribute information, allowing for rapid response to changing conditions. Mailing lists, web sites, and even chat areas can be used to enhance understanding and educate a group about relevant issues. It is quicker and easier to give feedback, by e-mail than by filling out a paper based questionnaire and returning it by mail. Many organizations have set up mailing lists for their members to facilitate information exchange or to be used as a bulletin. The cost is low and the information gets to you rapidly. In a future column we'll take a closer look at mailing lists.

The Internet has been used for online letter writing campaigns, electronic petitions and to distribute information to and from organization lobbyists.

It is more effective when used in conjunction with an effective lobbyist than by a sole individual. Senator Patrick Leahy, a few months ago, did take a nearly six inch stack of an electronically signed petition onto the Senate floor during a debate on a resolution. This stack contained the electronic signatures of more than 100,000 petitioners.

Politics Now (http://www.politicsnow.com/) is an Internet site that purports to present a balanced view of political issues. It is supported by ABC News, the National Journal, the Washington Post, Newsweek Magazine, and the Los Angeles Times. Every day pressing issues are presented with background information and the ready availability of opposing view points. Each week several polls are taken. The true political junky is invited to take the Politics Now Quiz, which covers candidates, conventions, and elections in minute detail. This site is worth visiting before and after the election.

With the panoply of health care issues appearing on the horizon, the Internet is a tremendous resource for keeping informed. The material available is comprehensive and voluminous. Preliminary and final regulations on Medicare are issued in the Federal Register which is available through the Government Printing Office at: (http://www.access.gpo.gov/su_docs/aces/aaces002.html).

Let's now look at the tracking of a recent bill. Using Thomas, (http://thomas.loc.gov/), the web site of the Congress, you may look up legislative activity by title, bill type, or number. Looking under title, we find the "Health Insurance Portability bill" which is H.R. 3103. The full text is available, along with the information that Representative Archer was the sponsor and that it became public law on August 21, 1996. The complete legislative history of the bill is available along with references to the Senate version, conference reports and discussions entered in the Congressional Record.

This year, before you vote, check out the candidates on Vote Smart Web. Even if you think you know how you will vote, it is worth looking at the positions of the candidates. After the election make sure you return to both the Vote Smart Web and Politics Now to keep abreast of the issues. In the future, when you read about upcoming legislation or enacted rules, follow the progress and read the final regulations on the Internet.

List of Links From This Article:

Project Vote Smart

Government Printing Office

Thomas