Congress is now just a click away.
Thanks to cyberspace, citizens across the nation can travel inside the Beltway - indeed, to the very halls of power - to gather information about policy, politics, and ... yes, El Nino.
An online Congress is a relatively new accomplishment. Two years ago, only a handful of lawmakers had home pages on the Internet's World Wide Web. Today almost all 100 senators and more than 330 representatives are cruising down the information superhighway.
Congress's new virtuality follows a promise by Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia, back when Republicans took control in 1994, to get Capitol Hill on the Internet. While the cyberinformation now available does not satisfy everyone, lawmakers' use of the Internet does reflect the three great forces in Washington - politics, self-promotion, and at least a tacit interest in the public good.
As a result, determined Net surfers can peruse anything from a House floor play-by-play to texts of bills to a senator's recipe for baked scallops with mushrooms (serves four).
The keystone of congressional Web sites is the Library of Congress's THOMAS, a legislative information service. Users can find texts of bills and laws, the Congressional Record, committee information, and several links to related sites. The House and Senate each have their own Web sites, which link to individual members' pages, committee information, and schedules.
For die-hard political junkies, links to the House Speaker's office and party leadership offices tell when Congress is meeting next, which bills will be up for consideration, and the latest Republican or Democratic "spin" on key issues. Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi provides the Senate schedule, while House majority whip Tom DeLay (R) of Texas offers a running summary of what's doing on the House floor.
Many member sites contain a "virtual office" that gives information constituents often request. Rep. Rick White (R) of Washington provides a form constituents can complete if they're having problems with a federal government agency. On Republican Sen. Wayne Allard's page, Coloradans can order flags flown over the Capitol.
Many members provide links to state and county government offices, to federal agencies, and to their state's major tourist sites.
Some members' home pages reflect the particular interests of those lawmakers. Californians can learn the latest information about El Nino or earthquakes from Sen. Barbara Boxer (D), for example. Sen. Max Cleland (D) of Georgia, a disabled Vietnam veteran, offers a link to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial site. The award for the most Internet connections goes to New York Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R), who provides links to everything from C-SPAN to the White House to a New York State restaurant guide.
CALL up Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain's home page and watch a pig roll a pork barrel across your screen, linking you to the senator's list of projects that he considers to be expendable. Sen. Bob Kerrey (D) of Nebraska, an advocate of IRS reform, will tell you how many collection notices the Internal Revenue Service will mail out before the Senate returns to consider his bill. House majority leader Dick Armey (R) of Texas tallies the national debt and your share of it.
To be sure, much of the material is frankly promotional. Sen. Conrad Burns (R) of Montana offers a library of video clips of his press conferences. Sen. John Breaux (D) of Louisiana lists the 22 cable TV stations that carry his "Jambalaya" interview show.
Many members, though, like to convey that personal touch, such as pictures of Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) of New Jersey with his grandchildren or Sen. William Roth (R) of Delaware with his St. Bernard.
Besides that baked-scallop recipe from Sen. Judd Gregg (R) of New Hampshire, there's a Cape Cod fish chowder recipe from Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts. Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio (D) displays his 1963 Dodge Dart (Do the "Car Talk" guys know about this?) and a photo of his Chesapeake Bay retriever.
Sometimes, the spirit of bipartisanship breaks out. Idaho Republican Sen. Larry Craig's site currently features a live shot of the Capitol Christmas tree, complete with the legend, "Happy Holidays from Senator Tom Daschle" - the Senate Democratic leader.
Clicking on Congress
Computer buffs can find a bit of everything on congressional Web sites - from analyses of legislation to fun for kids. A few highlights are below.
* Tax reform: flattax.house.gov/ - Details GOP Rep. Dick Armey's flat-tax proposal as well as an alternative consumption tax favored by Rep. Billy Tauzin (R) of Louisiana.
www.house.gov/democrats/ - Provides a chart to help calculate what your taxes would be under Rep. Dick Gephardt (D) of Missouri's "10 Percent Tax Plan."
* House floor action: majoritywhip.house.gov/ticker/
* El Nino: www.senate.gov/~boxer/
* For children:
www.senate.gov/~jeffords/kids.html Offers educational links for kids.
www.senate.gov/~abraham/kids.html Word puzzle.
html "I'm Just a Bill," a musical video clip from "School House Rock" about how laws are made.
* Legislative information: thomas.loc.gov
* House: www.house.gov
* Senate: www.senate.gov
* Congressional Budget Office: www.cbo.gov
* General Accounting Office: www.gao.gov
* Government Printing Office: www.access.gpo.gov