Next Big Thing: Virtual Legislation

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) recently made history by crafting legislation publicly via the Internet and blogging. Durbin talks about the process of give-and-take with his constituents and what some are calling "Legislation 2.0."

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Recently, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois tried an experiment: blogging live on two Web sites: openleft.com and redstate.com. He wanted to get feedback for legislation he's writing. Politicians are often the favorite targets of bloggers, but Durbin has believed to be the first to actively engage Internet users to help craft legislation. He wants high-speed Internet in this country to be faster and accessible to more people. And he joins us now by phone to talk about his bipartisan blogging efforts in our weekly segment, The Next Big Thing. Welcome, senator.

Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): Good to be with you.

CORLEY: Well, it's a new idea to go to the Web and let people comment on your bill. How'd you come up with that idea?

Sen. DURBIN: Well, you know, the big question in Washington, when you write legislation, who's going to be setting at the table? Well, we decided to let everybody sit at the table. When we went online, we really opened it up to those who wanted to participate in giving us perspectives on the issues that are going to face us as we expand broadband access.

CORLEY: You started doing this at openleft.com, a liberal blog. And I saw that response was pretty good. And then, more recently, you blogged at Red State, which is a little right leaning. You said on the front page that you wanted different perspectives, and I was wondering if you got them.

Sen. DURBIN: I did. And it's interesting how many things were in common. You know, the Red States a site, of course, is a little more conservative in its politics, and we were joking here if I was going to be the red meat on Red States. But after they screened out a few callers who had a few choice comments politically, we moved into substance. And you know what I found is there's an awful lot of well informed, involved and energetic people. They really want to get into this issue. They understand how important it is for our future. The United States is falling behind. We have a patchwork quilt of efforts, depending on the region or state that you live in. We have haves and have nots. We have to face these issues.

CORLEY: So are you just at the beginning stages now of what that legislation should be, or do you have some initial idea of what you want to offer?

Sen. DURBIN: We started off with four or five kind of basic guiding questions or principles. We've invited input. The next stage is to mark up the bill, and we're going to do that online as well.

CORLEY: You're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Cheryl Corley.

And we're speaking to Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois. And he's talking with us about drafting legislation online. Senator, this seems like a great way for legislators to reach out to, quote, I guess you would call us, "every day people." But there is a possibility that people from interest groups or lobbying firms might try to dominate the online discussion. And I was wondering if that worried you and if you thought it might be easier just to be anonymous online?

Sen. DURBIN: Well, you know, it's pretty easy to pick out those who have an agenda. What we found is a lot of diversity out there. The first night, more and more of them asked questions - is this real, going to be dominated by special interest, or will ordinary people have input? And I think as the exchanges continued, there was more confidence. A higher confidence level led the more suggestions. Now, I'm not going to take every suggestion given, but we are going to look at them. We're going to try to press this - them into build what makes sense.

CORLEY: Yeah. I was going to ask you about that, if these comments from folks as they answer you or talk to you on the blog, will that really reshape the legislation that you hope to come up with?

Sen. DURBIN: Well, it certainly gives me some confidence in some of the areas that we were headed into, and some perspectives on what people are looking for.

CORLEY: Well, what are people looking for?

Sen. DURBIN: The first thing, the value of this. They understand that the United States, we fell from fourth in the world in broadband access in 2001 to 12th today. Secondly, they really want broadband to be universal and affordable. They want everybody to have a shot at this opportunity. They really value, I think, the fact that online, there's an opportunity, an the environment for innovation.

CORLEY: Well, you know, senator, when I was looking at one of the blog responses, they asked you why federal regulators needed to be involved in this at all and mentioned that communities have come up with their own versions of broadband, and I was wondering what your response to that is.

Sen. DURBIN: Well, I invite that, and I've had it in my state. There are several areas of our state interesting - Chicago area is doing pretty well. In Northern Illinois, they have an effort called Rock Net to expand broadband access. And that tells me that on a regional basis, even on a local basis, good things can happen, but there's a big area in between that's undeveloped. And I'm really kind of curious as to what we can do - from a policy viewpoint - to encourage it.

I think as long as this is open and competitive, that we let the market place of ideas expand, that we don't have monopolistic situations where we're going to have a very productive environment.

CORLEY: With your legislation experiment, senator, and with the YouTube debates, we're starting to see mainstream politics sort of enter a new phase online. I was wondering what you thought is next.

Sen. DURBIN: Well, if this is the new town meeting. It really boils down to the fact that we don't have to get in the car and drive to a dozen different locations to draw audiences to talk about an issue. But, by and large, there are a lot of people who want to participate in this conversation, can do it online, sitting at home, munching on a sandwich.

CORLEY: And is there any reward of any sort for people if their idea is selected to be part of the legislation?

Sen. DURBIN: I - no, I haven't given any kind of award certificates to those with the best ideas, but I think there'll be some personal satisfaction when the bill's written if they see their idea ends up in print.

CORLEY: Well, thank you so much for joining us.

Sen. DURBIN: Good to be with you, Cheryl.

Sen. DURBIN: Senator Dick Durbin is a Democrat, representing Illinois.

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