You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

In House Appropriations, Little Movement to Support Online Transparency

BY Nick Judd | Wednesday, June 6 2012

In a statement released Wednesday, Republican leaders in the House of Representatives promised to immediately direct a task force to start work on making it easier to find information about congressional bills online.

Separately, the Sunlight Foundation* reports that another appropriations subcommittee voted Wednesday to defund a Federal Communications Commission program that would provide online access to information about spending on political television ads. The information is already available in hard-copy form by making an in-person request at television stations; the FCC recently passed rules requiring broadcasters in the 50 biggest television markets to make that information available for disclosure online as well.

Included in this year's legislative appropriations bill is language that creates a task force to consider releasing data on bills and lawmakers — information in the Library of Congress' bill tracking system, THOMAS — in a format that would make it easier for developers to use in their own web applications. That language drew criticism from transparency advocates who called it too little movement at too late a date, saying that the technology House appropriators wanted to consider adopting is already in place on their own side of Congress for other purposes.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), Legislative Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.) and Oversight & Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) issued a statement announcing that they would direct that task force to start work immediately, rather than waiting for the appropriations bill to pass the House.

Update: Reading tea leaves, Sunlight Foundation policy counsel Daniel Schuman writes that the announcement is a major transparency milestone.

He translated Boehner's announcement from Beltway-speak and explains: "'Because this effort ranks among our top priorities in the 112th Congress' combined with 'direct the task force to begin its important work immediately' and the higher level of leadership involvement [means to me] that things will move much more quickly."

Here's the statement in full. It does not set a timeline for the task force's operations or pledge to get this done before the 112th Congress ends and a new set of lawmakers might be in charge — two criticisms from transparency advocates:

“The coming vote on the Legislative Branch appropriations bill marks an important milestone for the House of Representatives: the moment lawmakers agree to free legislative information from the technical limits of years past and embrace a more open, more transparent, and more effective way of doing the people’s business. Our goal is to provide bulk access to legislative information to the American people without further delay.

“The bill directs a task force to expedite the process of making public information available to the public. In addition to legislative branch agencies such as the Library of Congress and the Government Printing Office, the task force will include representatives of House leadership and key committees, as well as the Clerk of the House and the House Chief Administrative Officer.

“This is a big project. That’s why accomplishing it rapidly and responsibly requires all those with a role in the collection and dissemination of legislative information to be at the table together. Because this effort ranks among our top priorities in the 112th Congress, we will not wait for enactment of a Legislative Branch appropriations bill but will instead direct the task force to begin its important work immediately.

“The offices involved in this project have been instrumental in using new technology to make the House more open. We pledged to make Congress more transparent and accessible, and from our efforts to provide legislation and updates in XML, to the video streaming and archiving of committee hearings, to our search for new ways to engage and serve the American people through events like last year’s ‘Hackathon’ – and more – we’re working to keep that pledge. Bulk data is the next and a very important step. We look forward to the task force’s report and to beginning implementation of this project as soon as possible.”

* Personal Democracy Media's Micah Sifry and Andrew Rasiej are senior advisors to the Sunlight Foundation.