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For Transparency Advocates, the Honeymoon with House Republicans May Be Over

BY Nick Judd | Friday, June 1 2012

When John Boehner promised at the start of his turn as House Speaker to make the House of Representatives far more transparent, and to use technology to do it, advocates for an easier-to-understand Congress were cautiously optimistic.

But House Republicans are poised to take a move that transparency advocates see as kicking the can down the road on the single most crucial thing the 112th Congress could do to open up the business of lawmaking.

A series of incremental changes followed Boehner's arrival in the speaker's chair that seemed to signal that House Republicans were willing to move down the road towards a more open, or at least a more modern, Congress. Rules changes allowed iPads on the House floor; members gained easier access to more modern systems for their websites; committees began streaming more of their meetings live online.

But advocates have long been interested, first and foremost, in a single esoteric but key change: Taking the information locked up in THOMAS, the Library of Congress' online access portal for information about legislation and legislators, and making it available in machine-readable format. A third-party system already makes information about bills available — but that system doesn't move as fast as it would if it were replaced by an official one, can't provide as much information as Congress actually has about each bill, and lacks the heft of authority that comes with a platform provided by government. And anyway, advocates say, revamping THOMAS is the single best way House Republicans could walk the walk when it comes to transparency.

Which is why advocates reacted with frustration when the legislative appropriations bill for the next fiscal year, which lays out how much Congress will spend on itself, proposed to set up a task force to examine releasing the information in THOMAS as "bulk data" in the commonly used XML format — meaning allow access to all the raw information inside THOMAS for developers rather than require access through a web interface — as opposed to just going ahead and doing it. Various appendages of the House already use XML to push out updates on floor activity and items that may come up for a vote in the week ahead.

The appropriations bill passed the House Appropriations Committee last night over the objections of advocates who said the fundamental premise behind creating a task force — that technical problems involved in changing THOMAS were difficult to solve — is flawed. But in a blog post yesterday, Boehner's communications director Don Seymour praised the bill as "taking a step forward."

Joshua Tauberer, who built and maintains the site at Govtrack.us that converts information in THOMAS to data other developers can use, was not so excited.

"If unauthenticated XML was good enough for the Speaker, Majority Leader, Clerk, and House Administration Committee," Tauberer wrote to me in an email, referencing these other projects, "1) what exactly is the problem for Appropriations? and 2) why would the Speaker think a task force is a good thing (and a good use of resources while cuts are being made throughout Congress's spending) if all of the examples of unauthenticated XML are working well?"

Daniel Schuman, policy counsel at the Sunlight Foundation*, agrees.

"Five years ago appropriators grappled with the same issues, created a task force with the same players, and that task force effectively stalled until many of the key legislative players had moved on," Schuman wrote to me in an email. "This report creates (yet another) insular task force with no deadline to report. It also fails to acknowledge that when the Library looks at the technology issues involved in 2008, they found them to be capable of easy resolution."

In a follow-up email conversation, Seymour, Boehner's communications director, said the 112th Congress had "made a lot of progress on transparency," and was "committed" to revamping THOMAS as well.

I asked him if that meant before the end of this Congress, when lawmakers and staff will turn over and priorities may change.

"We're committed to making it happen," Seymour repeated.

The appropriations bill will move to the House floor for a vote.

* Personal Democracy Media co-founders Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifry are senior advisers to the Sunlight Foundation.

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