Congressional Websites: The bright, bland and bizarre

Navigating certain lawmakers’ websites can be like stumbling through a virtual maze. Other sites are colorful voyages into a member’s life on Capitol Hill.

Just because someone is in leadership does not mean his or her online presence is better than that of the rank and file.
House Minority Leader John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) predominately green-colored site declares that the “eighth district is among the most dynamic in the State of Ohio” in his welcome message.

The district may be dynamic, but the site certainly isn’t. A click through the photo gallery reveals not a single picture of Boehner, though there are five pictures of the Capitol. With captions that read “test caption,” numbered one through five.

Visitors to Rep. Neil Abercrombie’s (D-Hawaii) webpage are likely to have a much brighter experience. Perhaps this is one of the many differences between Ohio and Hawaii. On Abercrombie’s site, guests can view his welcome letter in Chinese, Hawaiian, Japanese, Samoan and the primary language of the Philippines, Tagalog.

It may seem excessive, but because Hawaii has no ethnic majority, welcoming Web visitors in several languages demonstrates the “Aloha spirit,” Abercrombie’s spokesman, Dave Helfert, said. Aides in the district office helped with most of the translations, while Del. Eni Faleomavaega (D-American Samoa) edited the message in Samoan. House Information
Resources, the office that offers technical support, also helped to redo the site, which took a few months.

Aside from a large smiling picture of himself, Abercrombie has pictures of a red hibiscus, the Hawaiian coastline and the Capitol.

Clearly not all congressional websites are created equal. Typically, they offer pictures of lawmakers, their state flag and images of notable locations in their districts. Many have a sidebar with a biography of the congressman, constituent services, a pressroom, more images, his or her legislation, floor statements and contact information.

Others have links to “Support our Troops,” and the ability to sign up for updates, order a flag, help with tours and nominations and redirect to a kid’s page.

House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) has an attention-grabbing website. The site combines design elements in burgundy, white and blue, with graphics of gas pumps, money and the House floor. There are more than 20 photos in his gallery, which show the minority whip with constituents and soldiers in Iraq and at press conferences.

Blunt’s webpage for kids is well organized. He even has a welcome video just for young constituents, whom he urges to e-mail him. The effort is admirable considering such youngsters can’t yet vote, but his video message would only entertain a sliver of the under-18 set.

“Hi kids. Welcome to the page we put together just for you. Look around, whether you’re looking for information about how a bill becomes a law or planning a trip to your nation’s capital,” Blunt says in the video, in which his eyes look everywhere but into the camera. “There are lots of links to sites you like and fun games you can play as well, but of course only after you finish your homework.”

Blunt’s site links to the White House website, Ben’s Guide to the U.S. Government — where a cartoon Ben Franklin teaches children about the ins and outs of the American system — kids.gov and the Smithsonian Kids website.

Freshman Rep. Jason Altmire’s (D-Pa.) site is bland in comparison. Its color scheme is light blue and green, with pictures of Pennsylvania’s 4th district. If you scroll down the page, there is loads of white space.

Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.), ranking member of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, also has a plain website. Pictures on the homepage are tiny, and a viewer cannot tell who the congressman is.

However, Buyer has a detailed photo album that blows other congressional photo albums out of the water. There are more than 10 links to picture pages that offer better views of the lawmaker. Each page touts several pictures with detailed descriptions of each event. Many other congressmen do not say who is in photos or when they were taken.

Rep. Jim Saxton (R-N.J.) has an unusual link on his website: “Jim Adopts a Fish.”

Following the link is a release that says the congressman adopted a tagged Atlantic striped bass to “promote research and conservation.”

“We need to find out more about how stripers live,” Saxton says in a statement.

Kansas’s state flower, a sunflower, is a main feature of Rep. Nancy Boyda’s (D-Kan.) Web presence.

She has an elaborate, entertaining photo gallery, with pictures of constituents, her events and travels to visit soldiers.

If you want to contact her, click on an envelope and you’ll be directed to a general House website to contact lawmakers.

For a straightforward webpage, visit House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) personal website, which has more information on the homepage than most other congressional websites.

“A New Direction” is in large letters. There is an image of the Golden Gate Bridge and a link to her leadership website, which has the same picture as her personal site.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) has a multimedia gallery with videos and pictures of the congresswoman, but unlike others’ sites, her homepage does not offer a large picture of her at the top.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer’s (D-Md.) personal site is in three colors: red, yellow and black, the colors of the Maryland state flag.

There is an older picture of the majority leader with former President Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore. There is also a picture of Hoyer with Queen Elizabeth II.

Other members have interactive polls on their sites.

Rep. Kenny Marchant (R-Texas) asks visitors to gauge the most important issue Texans face. They can choose between illegal immigration, healthcare, energy, education, national security and others. Healthcare was leading earlier this week.

There’s a link to a “traveling help desk” on Rep. Tom Latham’s (R-Iowa) site. Several members of his staff regularly travel to locations around the district to hear constituent viewpoints.

There’s a scroll bar of recent releases on Rep. Tim Ryan’s (D-Ohio) website. There’s also a debt counter. It gives a webcrawler his or her share of the national debt. On Monday, a citizen’s share was more than $29,000, according to Ryan’s calculator. Ryan’s site also has interactive polls and a blog that is updated regularly.

The House Administration Committee has a detailed outline of what is allowed to be posted on congressional websites.
Content cannot include personal, political or campaign information; it cannot directly link to campaign sites or political party sites. Other no-no’s include links to grassroots lobbying, support for a member’s position or an advertisement for a private firm or individual.

Offices can use House Information Resources or an in-house staffer or vendor to create and update their websites. Expenses for websites may be reimbursed.

In February, the Congressional Management Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes a more effective Congress, listed the 85 best House and Senate websites with “Golden Mouse Awards.” Criteria included audience, content, usability, interactivity and innovation.

The report found that Senate offices tend to have better websites than House offices. Republican sites scored higher than Democratic sites in the House and the study determined that there is also continuity between the quality of a site and the 2006 election margin: Members who received less than 50 percent of the vote had the highest percentage of failing grades.

Among the report’s major criticisms of member websites: Nearly half don’t provide enough information about problems contacting a federal agency, only 26 percent offered guidance on the best ways to communicate with their offices and 32 percent of sites don’t link to sponsored or cosponsored legislation.  

Rep. Marion Berry’s (D-Ark.) website won a Golden Mouse Award. The site has a blog, photos that change constantly, a video gallery and updated press releases. He also has a link that shows all the service members who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan.  

“We did a big website haul-out. We have a guy employed part-time in the office, who actually used to be an intern,” a spokeswoman for Berry, Angela Guyadeen, said. She said updating the site was “very important” because it is “an easy way to reach out to people.”