Senate Relaxes Restrictions on Members’ Web Sites

Posted January 27, 2004 at 5:21pm

The Senate has relaxed its communications policy for incumbents seeking re-election by allowing lawmakers to continue posting press releases and floor speeches on their Web sites through the elections.

The previous policy blocked Senators in an election cycle from updating their Web sites within 60 days before a primary or general election to prevent incumbents from blatantly using official resources to promote themselves.

With little fanfare, the Rules and Administration Committee announced on Oct. 2, 2003, that the guidelines would be modified. The new regulations officially went into effect on Oct. 8.

The amended rules still prohibit Senators from updating their Web sites with position papers and explanations of votes 60 days prior to a contested election.

“Exceptions to this moratorium include the following: posting of press releases, posting of official statements of the Member appearing in the Congressional Record, and technical corrections to the Web site,” the new rule, as it appeared in the Congressional Record, states.

Senators facing uncontested elections were previously exempt from the ban and continue to be under the new rules.

Sens. John Edwards (N.C.), John Kerry (Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (Conn.), who are all seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, were the first Senators affected by the rule. While Senators are allowed to continue posting press releases and floor statements on their official Senate Web sites, they are required to put a hyperlink on their home pages explaining the new guidelines.

Rules Chairman Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said the change was made because the prior rule prevented Senators from fulfilling their official duties by updating constituents on what is happening in Congress. Both Democrats and Republicans on the Rules panel unanimously approved the change.

“To be perfectly frank, even though you may be up for re-election, you still are a Senator and you still have a right, I think, to make use of the facilities we have to put out what you are saying on the floor,” Lott said.

“I don’t see it being abused. We are still in session and still doing business.”

Unlike the Senate, which operates under a different set of rules from its legislative counterpart, the House has allowed Members to update their Web sites with official material all through an election year.

A leading Congressional watchdog group cautioned that the Senate’s decision to change the rule would provide incumbents with another advantage over challengers when seeking re-election.

“What will happen, predictably, is that Senators will use the official press statements during campaign activities,” said Gary Ruskin, director of the Congressional Accountability Project. “It will, predictably, lead to more use of official staff for campaign purposes.”

While Senators are now allowed to update their Web sites with press releases and floor statements, the lawmakers are still forbidden from sending information to constituents in an electronic form “unless it is in response to a direct inquiry.”

“Exceptions to this moratorium include the following: press release distribution to press organizations, and e-mail to perform administrative communication,” the new rule states.

The distribution of information through an electronic means during the 60-day moratorium became an issue in the 2002 elections. Then-Sen. Tim Hutchinson (R-Ark.) suspended the distribution of an electronic newsletter sent to 500 constituents after it was discovered he had violated the moratorium. At the time, Hutchinson was facing a primary election, which he won. He eventually lost to now-Sen. Mark Pryor (D) in the general election.

In September, the House passed a new rule allowing Members to send e-mails to constituents through an election day — an act it once heavily regulated and forbade 90 days before a primary or general election. While Members will have to continue to abide by House franking rules, the content of the e-mails no longer will need to be approved by the Commission on Congressional Mailing Standards.