Let's consider two American ideals. People should have equal access to information. Everybody should be able to participate in running our democracy. They're ideals, and only occasionally realities, but they should be familiar to everyone.
Information has been an American tradition for almost as long as there have been Americans, from the Zenger case and the First Amendment, to Carnegie's public libraries, to public-access cable TV. Equal access to our government is a fine old tradition too, even if it's honored in legend more often than in fact.
Roll the two ideals together, and you'd probably end up with the Library of Congress. The Library of Congress has been a public repository of the nation's information since 1800. As the 20th Century draws to a close, the Library of Congress is finding a new calling as one of the federal government's better providers of information on the Internet. The centerpiece of the Library of Congress' net presence is a system named THOMAS, after Thomas Jefferson, a guy who believed in participation by all, even if his idea of "all" was a little more restricted than ours is today.
You can get right to THOMAS through the World Wide Web. Point your browser (Netscape, Mosaic, Lynx, etc.) at this address:
and you'll be at the THOMAS home page. There are links to both the U.S. Senate gopher and the U.S. House of Representatives gopher, a link to C-SPAN, and even a spot where you can send e-mail to your own Representative in Congress (but more about that later). The highlight of the system is a searchable database of every bill that's been introduced during the 103rd and 104th Congresses. It's every political junkie's dream. The information that lobbyists, activists and gadflies used to get through word of mouth, or by sifting the massive output of Congress for one or two hot items is now available at home, with a few keystrokes, to anyone with Internet access
. You can search current legislation for a word or phrase. The search doesn't just look in headers or titles; it looks through the whole text of every pending, passed or dead bill in the database. Sometimes this means you'll get a little more than you're looking for. A search using the word "tobacco" turned up agricultural bills, but it also pulled up references to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. A search using the word "credit" brings up tax credits, military pay credits, retirement credits--but putting in the search as "credit card" brought the consumer credit legislation up to the top of the list. The hits in the database are ranked in order of how important THOMAS thinks they will be to you, and THOMAS usually does a pretty good job of guessing. You don't have to trek down to the library for hours of research, or bother your Senator's office for bill numbers anymore. THOMAS will do the work for you in seconds, and will give you the status on each bill to boot. Not every bill becomes a law; it helps to know which ones are moving and which ones are dead.
THOMAS will let you search the text of the Congressional Record the same way. Given the tendency of some politicians to ramble on, and remembering that much of what goes into the Congressional Record as a "speech" has never been orated by anyone, anywhere, you might not be as excited about this feature as by the ability to search legislation. Still, it's there, and it couldn't hurt to keep up with what your representatives in DC are saying on the record.
THOMAS is an excellent tool for following the process of how a bill becomes law. It lets anyone take the bales of virtual paper and pick out the items that will affect them personally, or at least the things that have to do with a cause they care about. There's one more addition that THOMAS needs to have to make it a real step towards e-democracy. The World Wide Web page for THOMAS has a link you can follow to send mail to your person in the House of Representatives. What THOMAS needs is to have those e-mail addresses linked right to each bill that a Senator or Representative sponsors. Don't like a bill? Click here to send mail to the guy who authored it.
Even without that sort of obvious link, THOMAS gives the average person with Internet access easier government access than Americans have ever had. That's still not everybody, at least not this year. (Not everybody had easy access in Jefferson's day, either; the founding fathers tended to favor white guys in wigs who had big farms.) The real potential of THOMAS to let people monitor their government and take part won't be realized until Internet access shows up on terminals in our libraries, or people are able to dial up the Internet through community freenets. These notions aren't too far away from being realized. The Twin Cities Freenet should be operational within a couple of months, which will let people who have a computer and modem at home dial up this information without the charges you get for full Internet access, and community groups are working right now to get terminals set up in public libraries so that even people without computers can get into these stores of public information. Maybe the ideal of Jeffersonian democracy could come a little closer to reality, and maybe we could coax a smile out of the guy on the nickel, as he looks down on us from upstairs.