Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Baca Website

Congressman Joe Baca (D-California) has never really been a member of the House of Representatives that I have had much use for. Until today. Baca's now infamous encounter with the Sanchez sisters that caused a pretty serious shakeup Congressional Hispanic Caucus didn't help his cause, but something available on his congressional website has him out of the doghouse with me for the moment.

Perhaps other members of Congress have a page dedicated specifically to the definition of types of legislation in the House or Senate, but the page I found most useful is one created for Baca's website. The definitions offered on Baca's website nicely supplement the simple definitions provided by Lexis-Nexis.

Why do I need a definition of types of legislation, where they originate and how they differ from other types of legislation? I have a stack of bills, measuring about eight to ten inches high, from the 101st Congress on my desk and they have a wide array of legislation abbreviations. I've encountered enough legislation throughout the Stallings Collection to understand that every piece of legislation has specific goals, but I was encountering goals or bill descriptions that were similar if not exactly the same with only the bill type differing (i.e. H.R., H. Con. Res, H. J. Res., etc.). Now I understand why certain pieces of legislation were introduced as one type of legislation and then reintroduced as another type. It is all coming together in a way that wouldn't have been possibly without the resource offered by Congressman Baca's website.

I don't think members of Congress understand how essential it is to have a website that offers their constituents a range of information and resources. Most congressional websites offer some type of form to contact them. They also explain their casework procedures, some even offering online forms to fill out to initiate that particular office's help with a number of constituent issues. On Baca's website this area is titled "Casework Wizard," which I thought particularly clever until I realized that "wizard" referred to forms or templates more than it reflected on the success rate of cases opened by Baca's office.

Where I believe some congressional websites fail is in the way they present information. Many congressional websites offer an overwhelming amount of information about that specific member of Congress, the legislation they are working on and where that member has made news or released some press release. This is all well and good until you take into account that the average American does not have the slightest idea of how the House (or Senate) operates. We don't all remember the wonderful Schoolhouse Rock "I'm Just a Bill" ditty. It's refreshing to see congressional websites explain the process--both so we can educate ourselves and so we can be sure that the people we are electing understand the process. Congressional websites need to tell us how the system works, not how they're using the system to get re-elected.

When was the last time you visited a congressional website that offered exactly what you needed and made that information readily available without a wild goose chase? Those of you have visited congressional websites recently know exactly what I'm talking about. Maybe members of Congress should have to give an accurate account of a day in Congress based on information they find on congressional websites. My guess is they wouldn't have the slightest idea what was going on if they were only connected this way. Maybe then they'd understand the frustrations of the rest of us.

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