February 25, 2008 | Commentary on Internet And Technology
A congressional Web site devoted to spending reform may soon fall victim to a nearly 10-year-old House rule governing online activity. If the Web site is axed, it will serve as an embarrassing example of just how behind the times our lawmakers are.
The Web site in question, earmarkreform.house.gov, was established with much fanfare on Feb. 12 by House Minority Leader John Boehner. But less than two weeks later, the House's chief administrative officer told Boehner he had to remove the site. The office now says it will review all similar Web sites, including Rep. Ed Markey's (D-Mass.) globalwarming.house.gov, to determine their compliance with House rules.
Boehner launched the earmark reform site shortly after House Republicans challenged Democrats to place an immediate moratorium on earmarks -- the practice in which lawmakers stipulate exactly which favored company, group or individual will receive federal grants or contracts. The moratorium is to remain in effect until Congress reforms the out-of-control budget process.
The "offending" Web site focuses exclusively on earmark reform, featuring links to news stories, press releases and a YouTube video of Boehner making the case for a moratorium. Pretty tame stuff, actually. But in this day and age of petty partisan politics, the Web site touched a nerve in the halls of Congress.
The House's chief administrative officer, Dan Beard, approved the domain name on Aug. 18, 2007. But only days after the site was up and running, Beard told Boehner it would have to come down because it didn't comply with rules regulating congressional websites established in 1999 by the House Administration Committee.
The rules require that house.gov domains must "be recognizably derivative or representative of the name of the Member or the name of the office sponsoring the website." Furthermore, domain names cannot be a slogan or imply an endorsement of a commercial product, commodity or service, according to the regulations.
Boehner is protesting Beard's decision. The earmark site, he argues, is no different in nature from globalwarming.house.gov, a Democrat-run Web site that has been operating -- without objection -- since last year.
Boehner also thinks there's something fishy about the timing of the shutdown order. After all, there has been a spate of recent stories slamming Democrats' abuse of earmarks. Citizens Against Government Waste last week named Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) its "Porker of the Year." And two weeks ago, Taxpayers for Common Sense revealed House freshmen accounted for $263 million in earmarks; Democrat freshmen took home 90% of those pet projects. In view of these developments, Boehner argues, Beard's decision looks an awful lot like a "gag order."
Because the site launched just days after Speaker Nancy Pelosi rejected the GOP's offer to institute an earmark moratorium, Boehner believes the House majority is unfairly exerting its control.
"The leaders of both parties in the House have discussed the need for greater transparency and 'sunshine' in Congress, particularly with respect to the process by which our institution spends taxpayers' hard-earned money," Boehner wrote to Beard. "By serving as a public clearinghouse for real-time information on legislative efforts to reform the earmark practice in Congress, www.earmarkreform.house.gov contributes to this goal and helps to increase accountability in the use of taxpayer funds."
The chief administrative officer rejected the notion that politics had anything to do with the decision. Spokesman Jeff Ventura said the office was reviewing all House websites for compliance with the nearly decade-old rule passed by the House Administration Committee.
Putting aside the partisan fighting over earmark reform, the conflict also focuses attention once again on Congress' outdated policies relating to the Internet. Last year Pelosi and Boehner both endorsed the recommendations of the Open House Project, which devoted a chapter in its report to reforming outdated rules governing congressional Web sites. Leaders of the project encouraged lawmakers to establish new standards relating to members' use of the Internet.
John Wonderlich, who oversaw the project for the Sunlight Foundation, said the conflict over the earmark reform Web site offers the House a perfect opening to update its rules.
"The Internet creates a new opportunity for members and staff to serve their constituents creatively online," Wonderlich said. "Congress does need to address real issues like maintaining IT security, evaluating what Web use may imply official endorsement, and enforcing the line between electoral and official business."
Regardless of the issue or cause -- be it earmark reform or global warming -- Congress needs to get with the times when it comes to the online activity. The Open House Project outlined logical steps to increase transparency and give citizens greater access to government. Pelosi and Boehner should dust off the suggestions so situations like this one won't happen again.
Robert B. Bluey is director of the Center for Media & Public Policy at The Heritage Foundation
First appeared in Townhall.com