Move to place government records online falls short, critic says

Thursday, July 30, 1998

A bill that aims to provide the public with better and easier access to government documents does not go far enough, a citizen activist testified
Wednesday before a Senate committee.

Gary Ruskin, director of a congressional reform group called the Congressional Accountability Project, told the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration that although the Government Publications Reform Act “makes small positive steps” to reform the manner in which government information is distributed to the public, “the measure is seriously flawed.”

“Though it rings with lofty rhetoric, it would do little to help citizens obtain the most important federal government documents,” Ruskin said. “In fact, some sections of the bill could make it harder for citizens to gain access to the written work product of their federal government.”

Under the proposal, U.S. courts would be required to make all federal court decisions available to the public via the Internet through a searchable database rather than leaving people the option of visiting law libraries or subscribing to high-priced computer-assisted legal research services such as Lexis-Nexis and Westlaw.

The measure would also make the decisions available at no charge to libraries.

Ruskin told the committee that S. 2288 should require the government to post on the Internet some more important federal documents such as the texts of bills and amendments, voting records, hearing records, reports and other materials drafted by the Congressional Research Service, a division of the Library of Congress.

Ruskin said that the bill “is basically a joke. It's ridiculous. We're almost in the 21st century, and we can't put these things on the Internet.

“For folks who actually want to figure out what our federal government does, it doesn't do much for us,” said Ruskin.

Sen. Wendell Ford, D-Ky., is a sponsor of the legislation.

The bill's purpose is ensure “that the American people are informed of the actions of their trustees so that they can, in turn, inform us of their will,” Ford said. “It is time to reform the system and bring it into the 21st century so that both government, and the American people … can be served … through enhanced information.”

According to Ford's press secretary, no date is scheduled for a committee vote on the measure.