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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion

Internet blogs offer grass-roots opinion

Jane Eisner Philadelphia Inquirer

Put aside your cynicism for a moment to stop and praise the citizens of Bozeman.

They came up with a naive but noble idea: Forgo $4 million in federal money for a new parking garage and direct it instead to Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.

“This is fiscally and morally the right thing to do,” Tracy Velazquez reportedly told the City Commission on Tuesday.

And even though one of the state’s senators derided the idea, and others called it impractical and silly, and still others couldn’t fathom elected officials turning down such largesse, the City Commission this week at least entertained the suggestion and agreed to put the issue on a future agenda.

Now imagine this scene replayed hundreds of times, initiated by ordinary people who worry that spending, oh, $200 billion on Katrina cleanup, on top of the unending costs of the Iraq war, at a time of mounting budget deficits, is not what Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he declared the nascent federal government should be “rigorously frugal and simple.”

Back then, replicating the scene in Bozeman was not even the stuff of imagination. Now citizen-organizing has a potent new tool: The Internet.

So even if the altruistic Bozemanians come to learn that “later” on the commission agenda means “never,” this attempt to make government more responsible and accountable need not stop in the mountains of Montana.

The pressure on members of Congress to sacrifice their pet spending projects — to sacrifice something for the fiscal mess they’ve created — is fueled by such online efforts as Porkbusters (http://truthlaidbear.com/porkbusters.php), which invites people to identify unnecessary spending in their congressional districts and then holds their elected representatives to task.

The Internet is also fanning the flames of indignation in states such as Pennsylvania, where legislators voted themselves a pay raise in the middle of the summer, in the middle of the night, and then bypassed state law to make sure the extra cash started flowing sooner than it should have.

These developments aren’t spanking new — the Internet’s starring role in last year’s presidential election was as talked about as Paris Hilton. But a medium that had been mostly the province of the technological and the young now is being embraced by the mainstream to influence day-to-day government, not only the occasional close election.

Research by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that close to 40 million people mounted lobbying campaigns online — and those data are two years old. The number today is thought to be much higher.

Meantime, the quick hands and unbridled passion of a growing number of bloggers has opened up a new stream of opinion, empowering anyone with the computer savvy of an average 10-year-old and something important to say.

“With blogs, the goal of transparency in government has been elevated to a high principle,” notes Lee Rainie, the project director.

Not all of this virtual organizing is free of partisan manipulation. Some attempts to chop “pork” out of the larded-up transportation bill, for instance, come perilously close to cutting “prime.”

Federal deficits will never be eliminated by spending cuts alone, and if the people of Bozeman can sacrifice their parking garage, surely the wealthiest Americans who have profited most from current economic policies can sacrifice something, too.

But the real test of this new grass-roots organizing will come on Election Day. Will the profligate spenders in Washington be called to account? Will Pennsylvania lawmakers find retribution at the ballot box?

“Now it’s up to us,” posted Theresa on www.happyvalley.com, after complaining about the legislative pay raise. Indeed it is.

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