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House May Host Its Own Websites

The crashing of dozens of House websites Tuesday is lending new urgency to a push from House GOP leaders to bring all of the chamber’s websites in-house.

A spokesman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said that, since the GOP transition, Republicans have been discussing a plan to stop allowing outside vendors to host Member sites, a plan they hope to implement by the end of the year.

“One of the determinations was that the House needed to take this over for people, which has been demonstrated by this last week,” said Matt Lira, the Virginia Republican’s digital communications director. “It’s unacceptable that the email system or the phone system or the website system go down when the people are most interested in contacting Congress.”

Members can, and do, choose to have their sites hosted by the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer. Both Cantor’s and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) personal Member sites are hosted on the CAO’s server.

But many others use outside vendors, and that can be problematic when the House experiences overcapacity issues as it did Tuesday, Lira said.

Congressional phones and websites were flooded after President Barack Obama, in a Monday prime-time address, urged Americans to ask their Representatives to compromise on a debt deal.

“It has not only emphasized its urgency but it has validated the decision,” Lira said, adding that the plan has bipartisan support. “Anyone who has had doubts about it, those have now been put to rest.”

Lira said vendors would be allowed to build and maintain sites, but they would have to host them on the CAO’s framework. The CAO hires other private companies to back up their networks in case they experience overcapacity issues.

CAO spokesman Dan Weiser said there are not yet any formal plans to implement the proposed changes.

Democrats are supportive of the plan and discussed similar measures when they were in the majority, said a Democratic staffer. Those talks were initiated by the uptick in Web hits during the debates on the Troubled Asset Relief Program and health care reform.

One website vendor said it experienced 15 to 20 times the usual Web traffic for its 75 House clients Tuesday. In a typical day, those offices will share 500 to 2,000 inbound emails, but on Tuesday, that number topped 30,000, said Ben Shichman, chief technology officer for iConstituent.

Though Shichman said the company was able to handle the load Tuesday, he said it would be supportive of attempts to bring the sites in-house.

“That wouldn’t be a problem for us. We’re going to do whatever they ask us,” he said. “Think of it as a small company vs. a multimillion corporation: Who’s going to have the means to build the best infrastructure?”

Rep. Jared Polis, who famously made millions founding a Web hosting company while in college, said he finds it “ridiculous” that the House sites could not stay online.

“Many companies, like Amazon and many others, have peak capacity around the holiday season which is 10 or 15 times the regular capacity,” the Colorado Democrat said. “You can certainly outsource that to reputable Web-hosting companies. You can also have outsourced backup for an in-house solution.”

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