Masthead CMC Magazine October 1, 1995 / Page 6


The Senate's New Online Majority

by Chris Casey (

WASHINGTON, DC--Sometime before it adjourned for the summer recess, before welfare reform stalled, and Senators returned to their states to attend town meetings and prepare for the coming Medicare debate, a new majority was created in the United States Senate. It happened without much notice, and it comes with unknown implications. The Senate now has more than 50 members with electronic mail addresses, and more than 50 members who post files to the Senate's Internet server. There is a new online majority in the Senate, and it is growing rapidly.

Who cares? I don't imagine too many people took notice when the Senate first had a typewriter majority. Or when there were more Senate offices that had a telephone, or a fax machine than didn't. Certainly each of these technologies has had some impact on how Senators communicate with the public, but none of these events are remembered as particular milestones. Why should the forays into Cyberspace of 50-plus Senators be different?

The Senate has a bad reputation in the online world these days. Efforts in the Senate to try and deal with the real or perceived problems that phenomenal growth in the Internet presents have been met by vehement opposition from the online community and harsh criticism in the media (which ironically often over-hypes the problem and helps stir the action). Whether the efforts are focused on halting the flow of "obscene" materials or other objectionable information, they often treat the Internet itself as the problem. To millions of Americans, some who've been on the net for many years, and many more who are newcomers, the perception of the Senate is the same. A new sheriff has come to tame the frontier of Cyberspace; trouble is, he doesn't speak the language, doesn't know the customs, and can't ride a horse.

The Senate is an institution that is proud of its traditions, and is very slow to change. Spittoons and snuff boxes can still be found in the Senate chamber today, and bean soup has been the soup du jour in Senate restaurants since the turn of the century. Televised broadcasts from the Senate floor lagged behind the House by seven years. The development of Internet access within the Senate has similarly been slowed by an institution renowned for deliberation. Even today the vast majority of Senate staff have only minimal access to the resources of the net, and consequently little understanding of this medium--a medium that's gained such attention, that their bosses feel they must do "something" about it.

But despite these hurdles, in the two years since Internet email has been available in the Senate , a majority of the members of this most exclusive club have taken their first tentative steps on to the Net. Following the examples of Senator Robb, who was the first Senator with an email address, and Senator Kennedy, who was the first to post anything on the Senate's server, Senators are rapidly moving to establish a presence on the Internet. House members are also rapidly getting wired, but are only about halfway to an online majority. The Senate itself will soon have a homepage on the World Wide Web (click here to check if it's up yet!), joining the 33 Senators that are already there. This demonstrates that putting the Senate on the Internet is not a fad, or a gimmick. It is a demonstrably effective means for communicating with constituents that cannot be ignored.

New technologies often fail to live up to their hype. But I remain a strong believer that the Internet can help bring the public closer to their Government and to their Congress. Members of Congress are finding that using the Internet not only keeps them informed, but it is also useful for receiving input from the public. I also believe that as more Senators venture online and explore the net, and as their staffs gain access to and learn the benefits of this strange new world, that a better understanding of the net will result, and perhaps by its action or restraint, the Senate will be better received by the online world. With the ever-growing online public brought closer to the Congress, and with a Congress that better understands them and their concerns, the benefits will be shared by all. A majority of Senators agrees with me. A few more and they're veto-proof ;-). [CMC TOC]

Chris Casey is Technology Advisor to the Senate Democratic Technology and Communications Committee and the creator of CapWeb: A Guide to the U.S. Congress.

Copyright © 1995 by Chris Casey. All Rights Reserved.

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