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Committees Make Leap to Online Video, but Approps Doesn’t Get the Picture

by

by Daniel Schuman and Cassandra LaRussa

Despite significant strides towards improving public access to legislative proceedings, nearly a quarter of House hearings cannot be watched online despite recently instituted House rules – with the Appropriations Committee as the biggest offender, with 70 percent of its hearings unavailable on the Internet.

The Sunlight Foundation tracked 200 House hearings over 20 days to determine whether they were webcast live, plus 407 hearings from January 17 to April 2 to determine whether video from the proceedings were archived online. Twenty-five percent (489 of 200) of the hearings were not live-streamed, and 22 percent (91 of 407) were not archived on committee websites.

While these numbers, at first glance, indicate broad non-compliance with House rules, in reality, nearly all committees did a good or excellent job of live-streaming and archiving their videos online. The major offender was the House Appropriations Committee, which is at the heart of today's debate about the budget and is responsible for writing the chamber's spending bills.

Of the 489 hearings that were not live-streamed, 47 were Appropriations Committee hearings (Armed Services was the other one*and Foreign Affairs were the other two). Similarly, of the 91 hearings that did not have video archived on the committee website, 74 were Appropriations Committee hearings.

In short, the House Appropriations Committee is keeping the public in the dark.

The House's Online Video Rule

In January 2011, the House of Representatives adopted new rules requiring that video coverage of hearings be available online. "To the maximum extent practicable, each committee shall --- (a) provide audio and video coverage of each hearing ... in a manner that allows the public to easily listen to and view the proceedings; and (b) maintain the recordings of such coverage in a manner that is easily accessible to the public."

This was part of Speaker Boehner's commitment to open up the legislative process to the public. He explained that "the internet offers new opportunities to open the halls of Congress to Americans in every corner of our nation."

Live webstreams and video archives are a way to bring Congress closer to the people. The privately-run cable network C-SPAN cannot cover every hearing, and it's unreasonable to expect people to travel to DC to be in attendance. Combined with cutbacks in newsroom staffs around the country, less prominent issues are unlikely to be covered by local media.

Appropriations in the Dark

Unfortunately, the Appropriations Committee has often declined to video-record its proceedings. Last year, I described a hearing on the House's budget that was not televised and was held in a room so small few people could attend. This February, I took photos at another hearing to show the public what they were missing (and that making a recording would be relatively painless).

When we spoke with the Appropriations Committee's press office last year about recording its proceedings, we received the following response:

Whenever logistically possible, the main committee room - which is equipped with webcast and video capabilities - is used for hearings and mark-ups.

The Committee schedules rooms for hearings and mark ups based upon many factors, including but not limited to: space availability, accessibility for members and the public, physical proximity to the house floor to accommodate voting schedules, and room size. Committee hearing rooms are also used for a variety of other purposes such as meetings and briefings. In addition, we allow any credentialed media organization to tape and/or record our open hearings and mark-ups, no matter which room is being used.

With 70 percent of its hearings offline, the Committee's practice appears to diverge from the House's requirement of publishing video online to "the maximum extent practicable." Nearly all other committees manage to put their proceedings online. Appropriators have a large hearing room that has cameras pre-installed. Were the committee to choose to meet in the Capitol building, it could request coverage from the House Recording Studio or meet in one of the new hearing rooms in the Capitol Visitor's Center.

Survey of House Video Sources

We looked at both individual committee websites and the Library of Congress THOMAS website to determine video availability.

We found that committee websites were generally easy to navigate. Specific pages devoted to hearings included a chronological list with links to the archived webcasts, as well as testimony from witnesses and a live-streaming function. This demonstrates a significant improvement based on our past evaluation of committee websites and a serious attempt to address Sunlight’s past suggestions.

The Library of Congress recently began publishing hearing videos on THOMAS at the urging of the House. Unfortunately, the website is very difficult to use and navigate. While recordings are sensibly organized by committee, they are given impenetrable names like "USHR07 Armed Services Committee." Is that a full committee or subcommittee hearing? What is the name of the hearing? Occasionally recordings are titled by the date and time of the hearing, but this is not done consistently. Generally, they are only labeled by "date created," which may or may not be the date the hearing took place. And if multiple hearings took place on the same day, it's difficult to tell them apart.

In reviewing the committee websites against what's available on THOMAS, we found 9 of the 91 videos that were missing from the committees’ websites. The Ways and Means Committee has failed to post 5 videos on its website that are available on THOMAS; the Small Business Committee has missed 2; and the Appropriations Committee and the Budget Committee have each missed one. That still leaves 83 hearing that are not archived online from the time we monitored.

There have been important efforts to fill in the gaps. Carl Malamud and the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform have together published online over 1,100 committee hearing videos from 1993 to the present.

The American people have a right to see what their government is doing. In the upcoming months, appropriators in particular will make important decisions about how trillions of dollars are spent. It's time to allow everyone to watch this online in real-time, as promised in the House rules.

 

Methodology: We undertook a best effort to monitor live webcasts of committee hearings between February 27 and March 9 and March 26 to April 2, but we couldn't catch them all. For any webcast that we did not watch as it took place, we called the committee to determine whether one took place.

Because there is no official and complete source for all committee hearings, it's likely that we missed some of the archival hearings. In addition, we only monitored hearings during the first quarter of 2012. Some committees may not have met during that time period. Others may have been particularly active. This research was intended as a snapshot of committee compliance with House rules on making livestreams and video archives available.

Finally, our list of archival video on committee websites is accurate as of the date of review. It’s possible additional video was posted after we completed our survey.

Update: We have been assured by Foreign Affairs Committee that the hearing we identified as not having been webcast was in fact streamed live. The hearing was delayed by a half an hour, so it was not webstreamed at the announced start time, but apparently was available at the delayed start time.

Photo Credit: the test pattern is from Gak on Flickr.