Personal Democracy Plus Our premium content network. LEARN MORE You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

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.

Transparency and Public Shaming: Pakistan Tackles Tax Evasion

In Pakistan, where only one in 200 citizens files their income tax return, authorities published a directory of taxpayers' details for the first time. Officials explained the decision as an attempt to shame defaulters into paying up.

GO

wednesday >

Facebook Seeks Approval as Financial Service in Ireland. Is the Developing World Next?

On April 13 the Financial Times reported that Facebook is only weeks away from being approved as a financial service in Ireland. Is this foray into e-money motivated by Facebook's desire to conquer the developing world before other corporate Internet giants do? Maybe.

GO

The Rise and Fall of Iran's “Blogestan”

The robust community of Iranian bloggers—sometimes nicknamed “Blogestan”—has shrunk since its heyday between 2002 – 2010. “Whither Blogestan,” a recent report from the University of Pennsylvania's Iran Media Program sought to find out how and why. The researchers performed a web crawling analysis of Blogestan, survey 165 Persian blog users, and conducted 20 interviews with influential bloggers in the Persian community. They found multiple causes of the decline in blogging, including increased social media use and interference from authorities.

GO

tuesday >

Weekly Readings: What the Govt Wants to Know

A roundup of interesting reads and stories from around the web. GO

Russia to Treat Bloggers Like Mass Media Because "the F*cking Journalists Won't Stop Writing"

The worldwide debate over who is and who isn't a journalist has raged since digital media made it much easier for citizen journalists and other “amateurs” to compete with the big guys. In the United States, journalists are entitled to certain protections under the law, such as the right to confidential sources. As such, many argue that blogging should qualify as journalism because independent writers deserve the same legal protections as corporate employees. In Russia, however, earning a place equal to mass media means additional regulations and obligations, which some say will lead to the repression of free speech.

GO

Politics for People: Demanding Transparent and Ethical Lobbying in the EU

Today the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU) launched a campaign called Politics for People that asks candidates for the European Parliament to pledge to stand up to secretive industry lobbyists and to advocate for transparency. The Politics for People website connects voters with information about their MEP candidates and encourages them to reach out on Facebook, Twitter or by email to ask them to sign the pledge.

GO

monday >

Security Agencies Given Full Access to Telecom Data Even Though "All Lebanese Can Not Be Suspects"

In late March, Lebanese government ministers granted security agencies unrestricted access to telecommunications data in spite of some ministers objections that it violates privacy rights. Global Voices reports that the policy violates Lebanon's existing surveillance and privacy law, Law 140, but has gotten little coverage from the country's mainstream media.

GO

friday >

In Google Hangout, NYC Mayor de Blasio Talks Tech and Outer Borough Potential

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio followed the lead of President Obama and New York City Council member Ben Kallos Friday by participating in a Google Hangout to help mark his first 100 days in office, in which the conversation focused on expanding access to technology opportunities through education and ensuring that the needs of the so-called "outer boroughs" aren't overlooked. GO

More