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Bulk Access Developments after the H. Approps Hearing

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In the last 24 hours there have been three significant developments on providing the public with better access to legislative information. The Appropriations Committee approved a fundamentally flawed report; Rep. Honda spoke out in favor of bulk access to legislative information; and Speaker Boehner's spokesperson reaffirmed House Republicans' commitment to bulk data while simultaneously praising the move by appropriators.

As best as I can tell, House appropriators tried to move forward on the House's broader commitments to openness and transparency but became entangled in its implementation. Instead of striking a balance between the desire for openness with legitimate concerns about process, they fell victim to fears and misunderstanding about technology that resulted in a ham-fisted process that will likely freeze any forward momentum, or maybe even turn back the clock.

What remains to be seen is whether appropriators will be able to right themselves even at this late date; whether other congressional actors will weigh in; or if these transparency efforts will be dealt a staggering blow that will take years to recover from.

Approps Approves a Flawed Report

Yesterday the House Appropriations Committee approved a legislative report that provides lip service in support of bulk access to legislative data while effectively undermining it. The flawed language that we criticized yesterday has remained in place. Here's the good and bad, in two sentences, from the report.

The Committee has heard requests for the increased dissemination of congressional information via bulk data download from non-governmental groups supporting openness and transparency in the legislative process. While sharing these goals, the Committee is also concerned that Congress maintains the ability to ensure that its legislative data files remain intact and a trusted source once they are removed from the Government’s domain to private sites.

In other words, the report expresses concern that citizens will mash-up and make use of legislative information in ways that Congress cannot control. Indeed, that is the point, and it is already common practice. When citizens have access to raw legislative information, they built sites like GovTrack, Open Congress, Washington Watch, and Scout. After all, the information belongs to the American people.

The report's solution to this "problem" is to establish a task force to look at the issue ... without a date by which the task force must report, a mechanism for public input, a requirement for open meetings, or the inclusion of any members of the public as members. And the questions the task force is supposed to address have already been evaluated by the same people who will serve on this new task force.

We know this because we have a copy of a March 2008 Library of Congress memo that looked into "what resources would be needed to make the underlying raw THOMAS data available to the public in XML, so that other sites can re-package the data in different ways without having to link back to THOMAS." The best part of that 2008 report is its final sentence:

Finally, efforts are underway at the Library of Congress to undertake a study of the relationship between LIS and THOMAS that will serve as the basis of a strategic plan for THOMAS. This will provide a sound basis by which we can better assess the expectations of Congress and the public, and how best to meet them. The study will also include an examination of accuracy, permanence and authentication of legislative data, along with any attendant issues, risks and workload.

In the words of Yogi Berra, it's deja vu all over again. We're not even asking for new information to be made available, but rather for currently-available information to be made available in computer-friendly ways. Our fear is that the task force is simply a way of sweeping everything under the rug. It's happened before.

Rep. Honda Speaks In Favor of Bulk Access Now

Representative Mike Honda, who has been a consistent leader on bulk access to legislative information and is the ranking member of the Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee, spoke out on the issue in his remarks yesterday. He has been involved since the beginning, and his remarks are particularly important because of the story they tell.

I represent Silicon Valley, the center of technological innovation in this country. Since I joined this subcommittee, I have tried to push the House and other agencies to explore technological solutions to issues such as transparency, evacuation management, and data storage.

As you probably know, Federal agencies, including our own in the legislative branch, can be slow to change and adapt new technologies. This is mentioned in the report, which includes language on the issue of bulk data downloads of legislative information, something I requested and secured language about in this bill in fiscal year 2009.

This effort is now also being championed by leadership on both sides of the aisle, as it is a way to increase transparency by allowing the public to easily download and analyze government data.

There are some concerns about cost and the ability to authenticate the data that the language in the report tries to address.

I think, however, that these are relatively simple matters to overcome, as data is already being compiled in a format that can easily be distributed and technology support staff has indicated that only a simple procedure is needed to make the bulk data available.

Furthermore, the GPO already employs an authentication standard for its own accessible bulk data through its FDSys website that we could also utilize.

I look forward to working with the Chairman and leadership of the House as this bill moves through the legislative process to advance these efforts to increase public access to legislative data. I believe the time to implement this is now. (emphasis added)

Speaker Boehner's Blog Reiterates Support for Bulk Access While Commenting on the Move by Appropriators

Speaker Boehner's Digital Communications Director Don Seymour wrote a blogpost called "House Moving Forward on Bulk Legislative Info." It is noteworthy for two reasons.

It reaffirms the House's commitment to make Congress more open and transparent, including by "releasing the House's legislative data in machine-readable formats." Simply put, the House has made significant strides towards online transparency, as we've written about many times before. A partial list must include the House's transparency portal, the Legislative Data and Transparency Conference, the Congressional Hackathon, the Boehner-Cantor letter, and the rules package. But bulk access to legislative data is the result that many of these efforts are working towards.

The blogpost also describes appropriators efforts to create a task force as "taking another step today toward making bulk legislative information easily available to the public." As we've described elsewhere, the devil is in the details, and the details in the committee's report would apparently undo some of the House leadership's current transparency efforts. While the approps bill moves through the legislative process, it may put all of the other data liberation efforts on ice while everyone waits to see what happens. I cannot imagine that's an acceptable solution to leaders in either party, to members of Congress, or to the public at large.