Gary Ruskin, director of the Ralph Nader-affiliated Congressional Accountability Project, a public-interest watchdog group, was incensed by a May 21 article in the Washington Post spotlighting a new for-profit Web site called HearingRoom.com. HearingRoom.com, which debuts June 12, will provide instantaneous access (via streaming text and audio) of all congressional hearings and whatever "markups" are conducted in public. (A markup is a session in which a congressional committee amends, and then passes, or fails to pass, a particular bill. Once marked up, the bill proceeds either to another committee or to the House or Senate floor.) The cost for this real-time service will be $1,000 per hearing; this will be discounted to $150 per hearing for bulk users. (If you're willing to wait a few hours, you can get the transcript, with audio links, for $500, and if you're willing to wait till the next day, you can get it for $250. These costs, too, will be discounted for bulk users.)
The excellent question Ruskin poses about all this is: Why should citizens have to fork over big bucks to find out what their government is up to? "Congressional hearings are public information," Ruskin wrote in a protest mass e-mail sent out yesterday. "We taxpayers paid for these hearings. We ought to be able to read them, on the Internet, for free." Ruskin has been complaining for some time about the sizable gaps in publicly available, Web-accessible information about Congress. In a Nov. 30 Los Angeles Times op-ed, Ruskin and Nader wrote that Congress's much-touted "Thomas" Web page does not include "a searchable database of congressional votes, indexed by bill name, bill subject, bill title, member name, etc." Nor can one access, in most cases, working texts of bills before they are voted on in committee or on the House or Senate floor. (To read Eve Gerber's pithy "Net Election" column on the Web's slim congressional pickings, click here.)
HearingRoom.com looks like it's going to be a fabulous product, well worth the cost to lobbyists (who today actually hire people just to hold their places in line to attend public hearings) and news organizations that buy it. But that's not really the point. The point is: Why is this information for sale? HearingRoom.com chairman Philip Angell answers that the information is already for sale. Federal News Service and the Federal Document Clearing House, a transcript wholesaler, sell texts of congressional hearings, though they can't provide these instantaneously. HearingRoom.com has paid to wire all the House hearing rooms for audio (the Senate ones were already wired) so it can transmit congressional testimony in real time. "We are making the proceedings available much faster in many ways than the committees themselves do," Angell says. But that, of course, is the point. Congressional committees ought to get this information out to ordinary citizens as quickly as it's going to be available to wealthy lobbyists and news outlets. Right now, they don't even make it a priority to get the information out to other branches of the government. Among those Angell sees as likely clients are people who work for state governments, and even various agencies of the federal government, who are inconvenienced as much as anyone else by the need to attend congressional hearings. In effect, the government will be paying a private company to find out what the government is doing.
In this digital era, it's preposterously cheap to get information out to great masses of people. The responsibility to do so should rest with the government, not with Web entrepreneurs.