Wiki site offers new avenue for advocacy

Jim Harper’s twin interests in government transparency and the Internet may give lobbyists another way to influence the political process.

Harper, a former counsel to the Senate Governmental Reform Committee, developed a website in his spare time designed to make it easier for the public to track legislation.

Now his site, WashingtonWatch.com, has added a “wiki” feature to enable users to edit information on legislation before Congress. Harper said it will be the first wiki exclusively dedicated to legislation.

“The blogosphere is mostly about politics,” he said. “This is about policy.”

The idea is to make it easier for the public to learn about legislation, and in a more user-friendly and interactive way than currently offered by THOMAS, the legislative site maintained by the Library of Congress.

WashingtonWatch automatically registers bills that are introduced and have been scored by the Congressional Budget Office, and downloads bill summaries written by the Congressional Research Service. Users can register to have bills on topics they are interested in e-mailed to them.

The tool lobbyists may find especially helpful is the wiki function, which enables users to spell out the pros and cons of a bill.

While the goal is to make it simpler for voters to get information on legislation moving through Congress, Harper believes the site could be particularly useful to small lobby shops that may not have the access larger firms enjoy.

“The bigger shops are more able to go in and get a meeting with a member,” Harper said.

The site could give shops a new avenue to influence public policymakers, Harper believes.

Harper himself opened his own firm, PolicyCounsel.com, after leaving Capitol Hill. He worked more than five years as a lobbyist, representing companies such as PayPal and Verisign.

Harper now works at Cato Institute, a think tank that advocates for smaller government. Although his work on WashingtonWatch is unaffiliated with Cato, the site does include information conservatives may love: the costs or savings a bill entails for the average American family. 

But Harper said the site isn’t designed to espouse a particular ideology.

“I want to provide transparency and let the chips fall where they may,” he said.