Guest Commentary - Jim Warren
Jim Warren's one amazing guy. An advocate of personal computing before the term was even invented, he was the founding editor of Dr. Dobb's Journal, founding publisher of InfoWorld, founding host of the TV show "Computer Chronicles", and founding editor of the Silicon Gulch Gazette. In his spare time, he founded the West Coast Computer Faire in 1977 (Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak had a booth) and founded and chaired the First Conference on Computers, Freedom and Privacy.
Jim is now devoting his considerable energy and intelligence to a simple, but earth shatteringly important premise: that all the information currently available to legislators and high paid lobbyists should be available to any citizen with access to a personal computer and a modem for FREE. This comes under the category of VERY IMPORTANT STUFF.
Like it or not, our individual destinies are inextricably tied up in the destiny of a Very Large Organization, the United States Government. To a greater extent than any other place I know, we the people are the government. The problem is the people who are supposed to be representing our interests are several steps removed from our ability to monitor them and therefore capable of getting away with all sorts of incompetence, sloth, and just plain old fashioned thievery.
We have a golden opportunity RIGHT NOW to force our government to give us access to the information we need to be true participatory citizens. All it will take is a few letters. I can't imagine a more worthwhile investment of time. Note: At the end of Jim's article, we provide mailing addresses for Al Gore, Newt Gingrich, and the two Senators from California.
Ken McCarthy, Publisher
A Once-in-a-Lifetime Opportunity for Real Citizen Access to Government
Most of my progressive friends (we used to call ourselves "liberals" but I'm told that's no longer cool) are horrified at the specter of the Republicans in general, and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (firstname.lastname@example.org) in particular, taking control of Congress. I feel differently.
I'm willin' to give Gingrich and the 'publicans most of this year to recognizably begin to do better than the Democrats have done in the past two generations (remember: a president can't spend any money nor raise any taxes nor enforce any laws nor create any bureaucracies, except as authorized by Congress).
In particular, I'm most interested to see how Newt -- who is consorting with Alvin Toffler (author of Future Shock and The Third Wave) about these ideas -- implements his proposals to utilize out net-technologies to open up Washingtoontown to effective national public oversight, access, grassroots organizing and participation.
He talks the talk, but will he walk the walk?
We're really rather pissed out here in the inconsequential wilderness beyond the District of Columbia's Center of the Universe - as too many politico's seem to view it. And we have no more patience.
This column (Jim Warren writes a regular column for Boardwatch Magazine 1-800-933-6038)
enumerates some of the information related to legislation to which the public needs
timely access. But actually, this column is really for Newt and Senate Leader Bob Dole
- and for the rest of the Congress-critters. And if ya generally agree with what's said
here (though perhaps not with its tone
Just think of the impact if every 2.3 readers of each of the 25,000-or-so readers of this issue of the Internet Gazette sent those five so easy to create copies by snailmail to Congress!
Here's the message to Newt et al.
The Past is Preface to the Future
What if the year weren't 1995, but was 1895? And some o' them young whipper-snappers were runnin' 'round town in them thar new-fangled gas-buggy things. They're dangerous, hard-to-steer, break down, scare the horses, and they're much-too-complicated for the little lady of the house to use. They'll never last.
But automobiles quickly and irrevocably changed the entire society -- enabling suburbs, demolishing rail transit, creating a national freeway infrastructure, polluting the air, escalating the national debt, and justifying the Gulf War. And those few adults who still can't drive are severely restricted and constantly dependent on others if they are to significantly participate in their communities.
The Kids' New Data-Roads
In early 1993, some new kids named Al and Bill began promoting the most powerful horseless carriages -- personal computers connected together via the proposed "information superhighways" or NII, National Information Infrastructure. Fifteen to 30 million people already travel the global computer networks, about two-thirds being in the United States. And for several years, the number has been growing by 5 percent to 10 percent per month.
Newt Behind the Wheel
Although the mass-media didn't bother to mention it until after the November elections, Gingrich has been urging for some time that the coyly-cloistered federal government open itself to citizen oversight and participation via out interconnected thinkertoys. Now Newt has grabbed the keys to the family car, and he may show us how really effective our glorious gadgets can be for remodeling and enhancing our society and putting the People back into the People's government.
Gingrich committed to make all (probably meaning almost-all) House legislative information available via the public computer nets as soon as it's available to legislators and their lobbyists. The California Legislature began doing this last January, and open-government advocates in at least a dozen other states are pushing similar proposals -- often using net-based grassroots political pressure to, uh, "encourage" legislators to open their coats and let us peek.
Although it's often said that one should never watch the making of sausage or legislation, we may soon have the ability to see what we've been snarling about for so long, regardless of where we're located. Much more important: we may be able to see it in time to effectively participate in the process through irresistible grass-roots action.
This can change government as much as the automobile changed society -- IF Gingrich does it right, even more so if the entrenched, elite Senate elders similarly deign to open their doors (and perhaps someday, even the judicial branch will do the same -- below the Supreme Court, which at least has already made its decisions available online).
If we are to be a free society, the first prerequisite is that we have timely access to adequate information on which to base informed decisions.
"NewtNet" -- as many of us have already called it -- should include timely, global access to ALL of the following, as soon as they are available to congress-critters and their keepers:
- Full text of all bills and amendments
- All available nonpartisan and partisan bill analyses
- Congressional committee reports
- Schedules and agendas for committees and all other announced meetings and hearings
- Prepared testimony and handouts (require paid lobbyists to submit it on diskette)
- Bull history (what action has been taken)
- Bill status (and what remains for passage)
- All unclassified minutes and transcripts
- Complete records of all motions made and all votes taken (including those outrageous "voice votes" that permit House members to avoid being on the record re many crucial decisions, e.g. last October's half-billion funding for the National Wiretap System)
- The Congressional Record (even though it is wildly fictitious since legislators often "revise and extend" their actual remarks before they are published in this official record)
- Transcripts of the House and Senate C-Span programs (which are accurate, even though they cover only a limited portion of all the hearings and events)
- Position-statements by legislators (except those issued within, say, six months before any federal election)
- Abstracts, summaries topic-indices and cross-references for all legislative information
- Reports from the Congressional Research Services (CRS)
- All Library of Congress's computerized files
- All federal statutes, regulations, policies and treaties (even though agency regulations and policies are often executive-branch information rather than legislative-branch records)
- Proposed budgets plus actual, detailed expenditures, including those of Congress
- Case-law (precedents set by courts, interpreting the meanings of laws -- often left intentionally ambiguous by congress-critters with inadequate backbone; these are judicial-branch records, but nonetheless essential for understanding government practices)
- Legislators' Washington and district office phone and fax numbers, and snail-mail and electronic-mail addresses (those hiding their Washington fax numbers -- except of course, from donors and "important" people -- aren't our representatives)
- Same information for legislative staff, plus descriptions of their areas of expertise and current assignments - easily updated when in computer form (related professional vitae would also help)
- Names and addresses of all registered lobbyists and their disclosed clients, legislative interests, fees received and "contributions" channeled
- Timely and complete campaign finance disclosures and financial interest statements (already available online from FEC -- Federal Elections Commission -- but only for a fee and after some re-keying delay; significant disclosures should be filed with the FEC in computerized form in the first place)
- Descriptions of legislators' interest areas and personal backgrounds
- Descriptions and tutorials about each committee and jurisdiction
- Overview of how Congress works in principle
- Practical tutorials about how Congress really functions, as would be needed by a new legislator or lobbyist
- among other things.
This must be available in standard, nonproprietary forms -- computer text, publication-quality text, financial spreadsheets, database datafiles, graphs, photos, motion video, satellite images, maps, etc. -- or must include software to handle non-standard formats.
Anything less -- or less timely -- is merely inadequate pretense of public access. And of course, we want it all now.
"Free" (Tax Prepaid)
This information already exists. Most of it already is computerized at tax-payer expense to meet government needs.
Nonetheless, some agencies charge profit-making fees for access to agency information in its modern, useful (digital) form. But any fees deter not-for-profit citizen use.
The cost of making this available via the public computer nets is micro-pennies per item, per computer owning citizen. Billing and collecting federal fees would cost much more than the per-user, per-copy access costs. Because of this, and because timely and fully informed electorate is an absolute prerequisite to a free society, citizens should have access without federal fees -- access to what they've already paid for creating, in its most useful form.
Congress should declare that such information is in the public domain, permitting unlimited copying, re-distributing and re-use by citizens, non-profit groups and for-profit users. The latter encourages entrepreneurs to add value in the form of additional analyses, cross-references, indices, printed copies, faxed summaries, automated notifications, etc. in ways that government agencies couldn't do and shouldn't do.
This mirrors the Clinton-administration policy declared in June, 1993, in the Office of Management and Budget's Circular A-130.
Now, the Question Is -
Will you take the time to advocate their actions in letters to your elected representatives? Now? Or is it just too inconvenient?
Copyright Jim Warren, 1995. May be copied-in-full at any time, in any form, provided this notice is included and no fee is charged for the specific copy nor for a paper publication of which it is a part.
California's Senators are:
The Senate Majority Leader is Robert Dole
You can write them at:
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