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Moving Congress Online: Modernizing Information Delivery in the House

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by Eric Mill, Sunlight Foundation Developer, and Jacob Hutt, Policy Intern

What would Congress look like with bill markups conducted on iPads, real-time versioning of statutes, and without bulky, printed Federal Registers? The Committee on House Administration Subcommittee on Oversight held a hearing on “Modernizing Information Delivery in the House” on Thursday, with Members of Congress and the public vying to answer that question. In 2007, the Sunlight Foundation issued "The Open House Project Report," which addressed issues surrounding how to make the House more open and transparent, and has continued to work on these issues to this day.

The first panel featured Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR) and Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA), who took turns addressing the cost-saving and increased transparency that would arise from a stronger emphasis on digital dissemination of House legislative documents; they also addressed concerns that may arise from an electronic-centric focus.

Rep. Walden, who led the Republican transition effort in 2009, explained how some congressional publications, such as the Federal Register and House Calendar, are more useful and up-to-date in electronic format. Some products, such as staff directories, really make sense only as electronic documents. He added that shifting to a electronic form of distribution would save taxpayers millions of dollars every year in printing costs.

While agreeing with Rep. Walden, Rep. Honda added that it may not make sense for Congress to go entirely paperless, and that it still may be more cost efficient for certain documents to be printed by GPO. He also raised concerns about how documents would be archived, and how they would be made available to those members of the public without access to computers.

During the course of the conversation, Chairman Gingrey and Rep. Nugent raised the issue of ensuring document authenticity. Rep. Lofgren added that certain populations in the US do not have internet access, and may rely on print copies. And Rep. Honda further explained that GPO reports that 70% of the cost of document production come from its layout, with the remaining 30% arising from actual printing costs.

In the second panel, witnesses detailed technological updates that Congress could employ to cut back on expenses while making congressional processes more efficient.

Thomas Bruce, Research Associate and Director at Legal Information Institute at Cornell Law School, advocated for converting legislative data into “interoperable, machine-readable formats,” preferably XML. He explained the many benefits of an electronic Congress, citing cost reduction and more easily accessible data for private developers. In his written testimony, Mr. Bruce suggested that print-on-demand facilities would provide for access to digital information in hard copy format would resolve Congress and the public's lingering need for paper copies. He also called for targeted Internet accessibility programs to close the gap for those members of the public who do not have online access.

The House, said Mr. Bruce, should focus on providing legislative data in bulk and in a timely fashion, with extensive metadata, so that services like the LII's U.S. Code could be made even more accurate and up to date. He also argued that providing this level of data access creates an economy of data with a great deal of business value, drawing a comparison to the government's publication of weather and climate data.

Kent Cunningham, Chief Technology Advisor for the US Public Sector at Microsoft Corporation, and Morgan Reed, Executive Director of the Association for Competitive Technology, also spoke.

Mr. Reed presented what a live markup of a bill could look like if conducted on an iPad or laptop instead of printed on hundreds of sheets of paper. He also argued that switching to a digital platform would not just be sufficient but “transformative” for how Congress does business.

When Rep. Lofgren questioned the witnesses, she said that the House's technology priorities should be "open source," "interoperability," and "security". This drew some cautious responses from Mr. Cunningham and Mr. Reed. Mr. Cunningham replied that it is possible to do "open source but closed platform," and Mr. Reed emphasized that the House should be "goals-based, not terms-based" with regards to considering open source in its technology selection. These jargon-laden responses mostly reflected the needs of vendors interested in providing contracting services to the House. The dismissal of "open source" as a buzzword likely reflected concerns about competition.

In a fairly uncommon but welcome addition, Reps. David Dreier (R-CA) and Doc Hastings (R-WA) submitted statements for the record. Rep. Hastings' testimony provided innovative examples of how the Natural Resources Committee has reduced its printing and saved money. And Rep. Dreier provided a fascinating insight into the unique needs of the House Rules Committee, and how it has developed electronic tools to speed efficiency and meet time-sensitive demands.