Give bloggers Capitol access

This is the first article in a weekly series, exclusively in The Hill, exploring the recommendations of the Sunlight Foundation’s Open House Project, which advocates online transparency in Congress.

Members of Congress are increasingly turning to bloggers as a way to communicate about public policy. Yet these citizen journalists who cover Congress lack what most mainstream reporters in Washington take for granted: access to the U.S. Capitol.

According to the Sunlight Foundation’s Open House Project, a collaborative and bipartisan effort to increase the House of Representatives’ online transparency, Congress can take several simple steps to improve transparency and foster a new spirit of openness. Giving bloggers credentials to cover Congress would be a groundbreaking way to shed light on the inner workings of government.

The debate over bloggers and online journalists on Capitol Hill isn’t a new one. In recent years, they’ve clashed with congressional press galleries as the Internet has grown in popularity and prominence.

In the absence of a congressional press gallery for online journalists, the Periodical Press Gallery has taken on the responsibility of credentialing these individuals. However, given its history of dealing primarily with magazines and newsletters, the gallery’s rules are not well suited for news websites, citizen journalists and bloggers.

The problem isn’t necessarily resistance from politicians wanting to keep bloggers at a distance. Rather, the biggest hurdle bloggers must overcome is distrust among the Capitol Hill press corps. The House and Senate press galleries take their marching orders from mainstream journalists, who have little incentive to invite enterprising bloggers to their coveted stomping grounds.

Journalists from media companies make up the committee that governs the Periodical Press Gallery. They oversee admission to the gallery and administer its strict rules.

Many of those rules would automatically disqualify bloggers, such as the requirement that applicants must provide daily coverage of Congress — a prerequisite that would be burdensome for any one-person operation. Another rule prohibits gallery members who work for nonprofits, severely limiting the number of bloggers who could apply.

A much-overdue solution would be to create an Online Media Gallery to oversee the credentialing process. This gallery would serve as a sister organization to existing congressional press galleries, adapting the rules of those galleries for individuals who operate exclusively on the Internet. The formation of the gallery would allow a committee of peers to establish new rules applicable for websites.

This doesn’t mean Congress should throw open its doors to just anyone, which would undoubtedly draw security concerns and create space issues. However, with its own rules for membership, the Online Media Gallery would allow citizen journalists who cover Congress to at least have a fair shot at securing credentials.

In addition, the new Online Media Gallery would alleviate the problem that exists with access to lawmakers. Currently, bloggers seeking to gain access to events in the U.S. Capitol must secure approval from a congressional office, letting staffers control the credentialing process and creating the potential to discriminate against certain bloggers whom members would like to exclude.

Changing the rules won’t be easy, but creating an Online Media Gallery would do wonders for transparency and open government. Citizen journalists and bloggers have shown a devotion to covering Congress. Whether it is analyzing the numbers in a budget bill or parsing the language of a resolution, these individuals are just as devoted to the truth as mainstream reporters.

Bluey is director of the Center for Media & Public Policy at The Heritage Foundation and maintains a blog at RobertBluey.com. He authored the “Citizen Journalism Access” chapter for the Open House Project.