(Cross-posted from the Open House Project blog.)
The Senate Legislative Branch Appropriations Bill (reported out of committee on June 21st) provides a revealing look into the priorities that Congress sets in funding its own operations. The House and Senate pass separate appropriations bills; this page on THOMAS organizes the appropriations bills for each fiscal year in a remarkably useful manner.
While the majority side of the Senate Appropriations committee did include a brief review of their bill (as did their House counterpart), I’d like to give my impressions of the appropriations from the perspective of an advocate for public access and transparency, using the Senate report as a guide. (The Republican websites don’t feature any press releases, which isn’t surprising, given the minority’s smaller staff and budget, comparative lack of clout in controlling committee functioning, and their opportunity to add dissenting views to the report, as I discovered in reading the House report.)
Congress can get a bit contentious at times over corruption allegations - see for example this Hill article from yesterday - but at least they don't physically beat each other up over the issue as lawmakers did in Bolivia yesterday.
“Buy it, use it, break it, fix it, Trash it, change it, melt - upgrade it.” If only fixing and changing the technological infrastructure of Congress would be as simple as Daft Punk would have us believe. At the beginning of the month Republicans were up in arms over a seemingly nefarious move by Democrats to gavel out a vote on an amendment to the Agriculture Appropriations Bill, a move reminiscent of the 2003 Medicare vote and 1989 incident where Speaker Jim Wright held the vote open for more than the required time. It seems, however, (a special House committee is looking into this) that the error made was possibly the fault of an outdated, outmoded electronic voting system employed on the floor of the House.
Gallup just released a new poll that shows that only 18% of the American public approve of Congress with 76% disapproving -- an all-time low. This poll was taken two full weeks after Congress passed the new ethics law which some have described as great victory. (We were very pleased with the online disclosure provisions but generally felt the bill didn't go broad or deep enough.) The numbers represent a significant drop in Congressional support over the past few months, down from a 35% approval rating in March.
I certainly would have thought that the new earmark disclosure requirements alone, which would allow the public to view the sponsors of congressional earmarks on the Internet, would have been something that the public would have noticed, and really liked. There were lots of other good things in the bill too, even though it didn't go nearly far enough to cleanse the Congress of even the perception of corruption. And clearly it didn't.
<p class="MsoNormal">Keeping track of congressional information starts at the local level, and blogs do a great job of informing people about what is happening in their own backyard.<span> </span>I have been reading local blogs for quite a while and have been very impressed with the coverage on local ethics issues and congressional information.<span> </span>So I would like to highlight every week some blogs that do a great job covering issues that deal with transparency, ethics, and corruption.</p><p class="MsoNormal">
From O’Reilly Radar on Sunday and the New York Times, it looks like Carl Malamud’s been busy, this time working to get legal decisions released into the public domain. As Tim O’Reilly notes, Carl has a great track record in asserting the public-nature of public information, by digitizing large amounts of information normally accessed under a fee or other limitation, and then releasing it into the public domain to force the issue.
Both pieces cited above provide extensive background on Carl’s work, including information about his recent success in getting four congressional committees to upload high resolution video for public consumption, helping move toward one of the Open House Project goals: free and open video access to digitized congressional hearings and floor activity.
Rep. Dennis Hastert announced today that he will not seek another term in Congress. In his farewell address on the steps of the old Kendall County courthouse, Hastert cited some of his accomplishments over more than 20 years in Congress. Here's the text from Hastert's Web site, with a few links I've provided:
Locally, we have invested in area hospitals and schools, making quality health care more accessible and improving education. From the city of Aurora to the Village of Prophetstown, we have provided Police and Fire First Responders with the resources they need to respond to crises and protect their residents. We worked directly with community residents to address local challenges such as the thorium cleanup in West Chicago**. We have advocated for local use of alternative fuel sources, like corn-based Ethanol and assisted Fermi National Laboratory in advancing its physics research. Our communities are among the fastest growing in the nation, so we have built roads and bridges, and expanded Metra service to avoid congestion and move people from place to place – benefiting our economy and protecting our quality of life.
It's not clear that any of those earmarks (save for the Prairie Parkway) were actually the handiwork of the former speaker. In fact, the lack of transparency in the earmarking process will also be one of Hastert's legacies--such preference for secrecy and unaccountability may well have contributed to the end of his tenure as speaker. It would be curious to see how many other accomplishments he cited were managed through earmarked appropriations.
The crazy-smart folks at the Participatory Politics Foundation who do all the hard work at OpenCongress.org are ready to show off two new 'widgets.' One is for tracking bills and the second lets you track issues in Congress. The bill tracking widget allows you to display the status of any bill in the Congressional pipeline, as well as link to news and blog coverage of that bill.
The issue widget lets you select from one of more than 4,000 different issue areas, and display either the most recent bills or the most-viewed bills in that issue area for your community. We figure this ought to be pretty useful to folks who follow issues, rather than specific pieces of legislation.
Two months ago, Sen. Barack Obama laid out his plan to make the executive branch more transparent and accountable to the American people. Ellen wrote a blog post then which both acknowledged the importance of a major Presidential candidate putting transparency on the agenda and pushed for an even more active transparency agenda. Yesterday in Iowa, Sen. Obama reiterated his transparency agenda while adding a bit more to it.