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Must Committee Websites Be Fair and Balanced?

An article this week by Fortune senior editor Stephen Gandel questions whether certain House committee websites, particularly that of the Financial Services Committee, comply with rules and regulations established by the Committee on House Administration. These provide that committee websites may not:

  1. Include personal, political, or campaign information.
  2. Be directly linked or refer to Web sites created or operated by campaign or any campaign related entity, including political parties and campaign committees.
  3. Include grassroots lobbying or solicit support for a Member’s position.
  4. Generate, circulate, solicit or encourage signing petitions.
  5. Include any advertisement for any private individual, firm, or corporation, or imply in any manner that the Government       endorses or favors any specific commercial product, commodity, or service.

Gandel’s primary concern is that much of the Financial Services website is “dedicated to just how bad the [Dodd-Frank act] is.” He suggests this violates the rules that “websites can’t contain political information or solicit support for a member’s position.”

I think Gandel misunderstands the meaning of the term “political” as used in these rules. The House Ethics Manual provides that “[o]fficial resources of the House must, as a general rule, be used for the performance of official business of the House, and hence those resources may not be used for campaign or political purposes.” The phrase “campaign or political” is a term of art referring to election or campaign-related business, as opposed to the official business of the House.

Oversight of laws within its jurisdiction, such as Dodd-Frank, clearly falls within the category of official business of the Financial Services Committee. No one would suggest that the committee is prohibited from holding hearings, preparing reports or issuing press releases with the most scathing criticisms of the law or its implementation. Whether one thinks the committee’s views are persuasive or even reasonable is an entirely separate matter.

Of course, the term “political” could be used in a much broader sense, covering anything related to government or legislative policy, or in the more colloquial sense of partisan or ideological positions/rhetoric regarding such matters. But if the House prohibited the use of official resources for “political” business in these senses, it would not only have to shut down a lot of committee websites, but most leadership, member and committee offices themselves.

With respect to the prohibition on soliciting support for a Member’s positions, the most natural reading is that it prohibits things like asking visitors to call their member of Congress in support of a particular bill or position. It does not appear that the Financial Services website does this.

I take it that Gandel would read the rule to prohibit committee websites from presenting issues in such a black and white fashion that the reader is compelled to accept one side as the correct position. This, however, seems like a strained reading of the language, and it is difficult to see how the Committee on House Administration would enforce such a standard. As Gandel acknowledges, lots of committee websites would fail if the rules were interpreted in that way.

If a visitor to the Financial Services website wants to hear the other side of the argument regarding Dodd-Frank, she can visit the committee’s minority site, where she can read an assessment of the law which is as uniformly positive as the majority’s is negative. Which should come as no surprise, considering that the ranking member is Representative Frank.

Of course, one might argue that some committee websites go beyond merely presenting issues in a one-sided fashion and should be construed as implicitly urging the visitor to take action to support a particular position. A visitor to the House Armed Services Committee website, for example, sees a pop-up window that says “Prevent Another Round of Damaging Cuts to our Military.”

I can see the argument that this violates the spirit of the rules. The pop-up window, in particular, seems a bit much. Perhaps the Committee on House Administration should review interactive features on committee websites to make sure that they aren’t effectively hijacking visitors who may be looking for unrelated information. Beyond this, however, I think the Committee can leave it up to the public to judge the substance of what committees have to say on issues within their jurisdiction.

Finally, Gandel raises a question about what rules apply to Facebook pages, which many committees and members apparently have. I am not sure of the answer to that. I have a vague sense that both the House and Senate have given permission for members to use social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) and it seems that the standards for such communications are considerably looser than those that govern official communications. (Though perhaps not this loose). Maybe this is an area that could use clarification from the Committee on House Administration or the Ethics Committee.

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