Wiring Washington: Capitol Hill Challenges Beverly Hills 90210

ON a cold night, do you like to curl up with a cat, a cup of cocoa, and a copy of the Hazardous Waste Transportation Act of 1994?

Is your idea of tempting television a C-SPAN broadcast of the National Governors' Association debate on unfunded mandates? Have you ever clipped a telling remark about liability reform from the Congressional Record, underlined it, and sent it to your mother?

If so, get ready for an explosion of riches. Republicans are pushing a number of new government-openness efforts in what they say is an attempt to greatly increase the raw data about Washington available to the general public.

C-SPAN cameras will roam more freely than ever before. Copies of bills and the Congressional Record will be available for no charge, courtesy of a new Library of Congress computer data service.

This newly wired Washington will enable citizens to bypass the cynical filter of the elite news media, according to some in the GOP. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia even holds up a vision of a kind of policy-wonk nation, in which discussion of House Resolution 45824 may replace fixation on Beverly Hills 90210.

``This can make for dramatically healthier dialogue among citizens,'' said Speaker Gingrich last week at the introduction of the new Library of Congress on-line service.

But congressional Republicans can't claim sole credit for increasing electronic access to Washington information. Planning for the new on-line Library of Congress system began when Democrats controlled Congress, after all. The Clinton administration has itself opened up much executive-branch information to on-line scrutiny.

And it may be stretching things a bit to hold, as some Republicans do, that raw data will flow down to the level of the average citizen, opening up an electronic town hall meeting.

``I'm kind of cautious about this plebiscite picture of electronic democracy,'' says Daniel Weitzman, a co-founder of the Washington-based Center for Democracy and Technology.

``I think the real potential is that local organized groups, people not in the flow of faxes that go around Washington, will be able to participate in the process because they will have primary source material.''

Specifically, these are the moves that will wire Washington for more sound, pictures, and data downloading in coming months:

* C-SPAN, the cable channel that broadcasts Washington events unvarnished, will have expanded congressional access. Republican lawmakers have agreed to allow C-SPAN cameras into most committee meetings and the press briefings of the House Speaker and Senate majority leader. Committee meetings, not the House or Senate floor, are where most of Washington's legislative wrangling occurs; televising such action is thus an important step.

* The Library of Congress last week inaugurated ``Thomas,'' an on-line service named for Thomas Jefferson that will eventually provide users access to the full texts of bills in Congress and the daily Congressional Record. Currently, only legislation from the last Congress is available. This session's bills, and the important Congressional Research Service's Bill Digest summarizing upcoming legislation, would normally be made available later on.

``Thomas'' is available on the Internet through a service called the World Wide Web. (If you want to know its address, E-mail the library at thomas @loc.gov. If you don't know how to do that, you're in over your head.)

* The new Republican leadership has also pledged greater access for talk-radio show hosts - a force they feel is more ideologically on their side than Washington television and print political reporters.

In his brief Library of Congress appearance last week the new Speaker of the House enthused about efforts to ``stretch beyond the Gutenberg era'' in the provision of Washington information. People don't really care about the scandals and ``gotcha'' information most D.C. journalists chase after, Mr. Gingrich said. They want real facts about government's business.

People curious about the workings of democracy will even log-in to ``Thomas'' from other nations, Gingrich said. ``This will spread opportunities for freedom across the planet,'' he said, warming to a favorite topic.

The executive branch has not been left behind in the race to wire government - the White House has a number of explanatory on-line services.

FedWorld, for instance, provides access to a vast array of government documents and the latest White House presidential documents, including press releases. (FedWorld is at (703) 321-8020. Terminal emulation ANSI, parity none, data bits, 8, stop bit 1. If that's Computer Greek to you, you're really, really in over your head.)

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