VERMONT - What do Peter Welch and Bernie Sanders have in common with Republicans Dennis Hastert and Trent Lott? They all failed a February 2007 investigation on how easy their websites are to use and how clear their contents are. Both Vermont representatives, however, claim the report is misleading, and also that they're already improving their respective sites.
The investigation, which assesses website transparency and accessibility based on 12 categories, was sponsored by two independent web watchdog groups. The Madison, Wisconsin-based Center for Media and Democracy bills itself as a "wiki-based investigative journalism collaborative." Its partner organization, the Sunlight Foundation of Washington, D.C., advocates for web-based citizen monitoring of elected officials. The investigation itself links to the site "Congresspedia," which belongs to the larger media watchdog site http://www.sourcewatch.org.
In the report, both Congressman Welch (official site, survey scorecard) and Senator Sanders (official site, survey scorecard) scored 16 percent out of 100. By contrast, Senator Leahy's site received 40 percent, the official passing grade (official site, survey scorecard). According to Sunlight Foundation officials, the average score was 29 percent. Of 535 federal legislators, 373 received failing scores.
Both Welch and Sanders failed in 10 of 12 categories. Leahy's site failed in seven. Welch's site failed, among other requirements, to list "the names of the committees and subcommittees on which the member serves," "links to websites of the committees on which the member serves," and "statements or links to statements inserted into the congressional website."
"What the Sunlight Foundation graded this winter was a stock site that all congressional freshmen begin with," insisted Welch spokesman Andrew Savage. Savage, who had not heard of the investigation, said that since taking office in January, Congressman Welch has been planning to update his new website. Savage also claimed Welch's new website was "just days away" from completion.
"Our goal is to create a site that makes Congressman Welch accessible to Vermonters and provides resources they'll find both useful and enjoyable," Savage added. "I'm confident that our new site will meet the Sunlight Foundation's passing grade."
A Sanders spokesman pointed out that the senator's website has already been updated since the report. In February, Sanders' site failed tests which evaluated for the presence of "a list or a link to bills the member has sponsored or co-sponsored," "the names of the committees and subcommittees on which the member serves," and "links to the websites of the committees on which the member serves." Now, however, his website has been adjusted to pass each of those tests. If re-tested, the site would now earn a passing score.
"We take our website very seriously," Sanders said in a phone interview from Washington, D.C. "When I was in the House, we got over 100,000 hits per month, which is probably more than anyone else in the congressional leadership." Sanders claimed that while his current website is "in transit," he plans to make it just as thorough as his former site.
"The proof is in the pudding," the senator suggested. "Our website is good - and we'll make it better."