Yesterday the House passed legislation to close a loophole that may have allowed the SEC to disregard certain FOIA requests. The Senate passed identical legislation on Wednesday; S. 3717 now goes to the President for his signature. Many organizations, including the Sunlight Foundation, had called for removal of the exemption which was created in the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory bill passed earlier this year.
Our graduate policy intern, Eric Naing, offers a few farewell words. We will miss him.
My time as the graduate policy intern at the Sunlight Foundation is at an end and I can't stress enough how much I've learned and how much I will miss it.
When I first started working here, I was an aspiring journalist with an interest in government and politics. Several months later, I can say that I am not only leaving Sunlight knowing far more about government and transparency than I expected to learn, but I also have a broader understanding of issues that I didn't have much experience with such as grassroots organizing, government data, and even web development.
Working with John Wonderlich, Daniel Schuman, Lisa Rosenberg, Alexis Rudakewych on the Sunlight policy team has been wonderful. Their mentoring and the institutional knowledge of government that they shared has been invaluable. And enough really can't be said about the importance of working with highly motivated and knowledgeable people like them.
I would highly recommend this internship to anyone interested. The work I did was always substantive and challenging. For example, evaluating Open Government Plans allowed me to cast a critical eye on federal agencies and learn how they operate and are structured. Cataloging bills related to earmarks, lobbying, and transparency allowed me to better understand how to track legislation and left me with the skills to ably navigate THOMAS. Researching material for and attending Transparency Caucus events allowed me to learn more about things like Congressional Research Service Reports and provided me with a first-hand view of how congressional committees work. Even doing simple things like tracking transparency news has given me new insights to issues I never followed before such as government oversight, web development, federal agency news, and the broader government transparency movement.
Beyond the policy department, I also have to thank everyone else at Sunlight. The organizing and communication teams showed me the nuts and bolts of grassroots organizing and how to work with the press. Sunlight Labs introduced me to a previously unknown world of technology and showed me how it can be used to organize and educate. The Reporting Group showed me the importance of keeping the government accountable, particularly on the most basic and overlooked levels. All these people and the others at Sunlight have been exceedingly helpful and kind to me in my time here. It's been an honor to work with them and I'll miss them all.
One final thing that's worth noting is that I leave Sunlight with a stronger and clearer belief in the importance of transparency in government – a concept that bridges ideological divides. Regardless of what you do or who you are, anyone should appreciate having better access to government data and having a better understanding of what your government is doing. Though achieving these goals requires a constant struggle fraught with compromise and disappointment, they are absolutely worth fighting for.
This afternoon, the Senate failed to reach the 60 votes necessary to cut off debate and proceed to vote on the Disclose Act. 59 senators voted to “create a transparency regime so that corporations, unions and wealthy individuals who want to advance their own agenda by paying for independent expenditures could not do so while hiding their real identity,” in the words of my colleague Lisa Rosenberg.
Yesterday the Senate unanimously voted to close a loophole that may have allowed the SEC to disregard certain FOIA requests. The loophole was uncovered only after the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory bill was enacted in July.
Many organizations took issue with the SEC FOIA exemption, prompting letters from the Project on Government Oversight on August 3 and OpenTheGovernment.org on August 10. The Sunlight Foundation endorsed both letters, as did many others.
The measure enacted in the Senate, S. 3717, was the subject of a hearing by the Senate Judiciary Committee on September 16. Companion legislation, H.R. 6086, was referred to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. The measure enjoys bipartisan support, although time is running out for the House to act before the mid-term elections.
Today, on the birthday of the Constitution, more than 20 organizations and individuals called for better public access to the legal treatise Constitution Annnotated, a government publication that explains the Constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court. Although updated on a frequent basis and readily available to congressional staff, the complete Constitution Annotated is released to the public only once a decade -- scrubbed of helpful metadata. Updates reflecting recent Court decisions are released separately every two years, far short of what’s available to Congress.
We believe the Constitution Annotated should be published online as it is updated and with metadata intact. Because it is prepared in XML, this is relatively easy to do.
Last September, the Sunlight Foundation called for the release of the Constitution Annotated, a call that was joined by Senator Feingold in October. Although the Congressional Research Service and the Government Printing Office have held a meeting regarding its release, as the parties respectively responsible for authoring and publishing the document, they still have not acted. It is time.
The signatories urge Senators Schumer and Bennett and Representatives Brady and Lungren -- who lead the relevant House and Senate committees -- to prod CRS and GPO to make this vital resource available to the American people intact and on a timely basis.
Rep. Steve Driehaus (D-OH) recently introduced legislation that would make it a lot easier for the public to access thousands of congressionally mandated reports. These reports are created when Congress requires agencies to give an accounting of their actions or plans for addressing a particular issue. Once received by Congress, the reports become House or Senate documents, and often provide valuable insight into what the federal government is (or should be) doing.
House documents, according to the Clerk of the House, originate from congressional committees and including annual reports of executive departments, investigative reports made to congress, presidential messages, and other similar publications. (House or Senate documents should not to be confused with House or Senate reports, which are prepared by congressional committees on proposed legislation and issues under investigation.) Rep. Dreihaus’ bill applies to congressionally mandated reports only.
Not all congressionally mandated reports are available online. Electronic access would put more eyes on each document, thereby enhancing their usefulness as oversight documents. My colleague John Wonderlich earlier wrote about how these reports can inform committee oversight plans. Rep. Dreihaus’ spokesman Tim Mulvey explains that “The reason Congress passes laws mandating these reports is so the American people can understand how their government works, and where it may not be working so well.” Driehaus, who sits on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, believes this bill could play a vital role in educating the public on what the government does.
At the beginning of each Congress, the Clerk of the House generates (pursuant to House Rule II) a report entitled “Reports to be Made to Congress,” which lists all congressionally mandated reports. It cites the law or resolution in which the requirement may be contained and placing under the name of each officer the list of reports required to be made by such officer.
While the report itself is available through GPO (here’s the 235-page report submitted in the 111th Congress: [PDF]) all of the reports it identifies are not. The GPO makes an effort to make these documents available online, but they don't get everything. In addition, even when the documents are online, they are often difficult to find. For a closer look, check out the GPO’s index of congressional documents and search engine.
The Access to Congressional Mandated Reports Act, or H.R. 6026, would resolve several problems. The bill requires the director of the Office of Management and Budget to create a central website that will let the public access congressionally mandated reports. The legislation would mandate improved search functionality so that people can find the documents, allow people to be notified when a particular document becomes available, and require public access to the report within 30 days. In addition, OMB would be required to issue regulations to the agencies on how they should submit reports, which must be in electronic format.
Rep. Dreihaus has the right idea. Reps. Towns and Clay agree, as they’ve co-sponsored the legislation. Congressionally mandated reports (with few exceptions) should be available online, and I would add that congressionally documents should be published online as a general rule. Creating deadlines for the reports to be available, requiring electronic formats, and improving access to the public are all excellent ideas.
I do have a few minor quibbles. OMB has experience issuing regulations to make this kind of effort succeed, but it would be unconventional for their regulations to apply to independent agencies or the legislative or judicial branches. Similarly, it is more common for the Clerk or the Library of Congress or some other entity under congressional control to house congressional documents, instead of OMB, which is an arm of the President. Nevertheless, this legislation is a smart move in the right direction toward making government more open, transparent, and accountable.
Eric Naing contributed significantly to the writing and researching of this article.
It’s getting towards the end of summer and we’re getting a little silly here at Sunlight. The news is full of stories of politician’s hidden agendas, summer hideaways, and navel gazing -- pretty typical fare for late August. We’ve taken our cue and looked deeply into politicians names to see if the letters themselves spell out a hidden message.
For example, it’s not surprising that Sarah Palin is commenting on the New York mosque controversy when the letters in her name, slightly reordered, spell out “Sharia plan.” Charlie Rangel’s fate has been sealed now that we know his name translates into “Clang! Liar here.” And American workers should hold tight to their paychecks because Joe Biden’s secret message is the slightly ungrammatical “I need job.” No sense can be made out of Harry Reid’s “hair dryer”, but perhaps Republicans should know that Michael Steele portends “ethical melees.”
Our media friends don't escape, either. Perhaps pointing to the closing of affiliate offices around the country, the Washington Post must take its few “waning potshots.” Its competition at the New York Times is merely a bunch of “write monkeys.” Meanwhile, bloggers at the progressive Daily Kos generate “solid yak” while the conservative Red State is a “tad terse.”
Talking heads Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann become “Lib yell roil” and “Oink! Blather Men.” What would Jon Stewart say about this? His blend of humor, wit, and sarcasm translates into “Rant! Jest! Ow!”
To find out the hidden meaning of Anderson Cooper -- it’s really kinda odd -- check out this anagram finder. We’d love to see what you find in the comments.
What’s the price of justice? Over the last decade, state supreme court candidates raised over $200 million for their elections, two-and-a-half times the $83 million they raised during 1990-1999, according to newly released report. The need to raise ever-increasing amounts of money prompted former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to warn of a real and growing “crisis of confidence in the impartiality of the judiciary” in her foreword to “The New Politics of Judicial Elections: 2000-2009.”
With big contributors appearing before the judges they helped elect -- the top 5 “super spenders” in 29 elections spent an average of $473,000 each -- it is no surprise that nearly half of state judges polled in 2001 agree that campaign donations influence judicial decisions. Three-quarters of American share their concerns.
We only know part of the money story. Millions of dollars have flowed into judicial elections “in ways crafted to avoid financial disclosure even as they seek to sway judicial contests,” according to the report. Challenges to campaign disclosure laws, the use of shell entities to funnel funds, and the recent decision in Citizens United to allow unlimited corporate expenditures all work to obscure the full picture.
The report’s authors -- Adam Skaggs and Jonathan Blitzer at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, James Sample of Hofstra University School of Law, Charlie Hall at Justice at Stake Campaign, and Linda Casey at National Institute on Money in State Politics -- have constructed an an incredible reference document that does a superior job of putting spending on state judicial elections in context. Don't miss their index of state supreme court TV advertisements and state-by-state contribution and expenditure profiles.
Although not part of the report, more on state-by-state and candidate-by-candidate contributions is available for download at TransparencyData.com, a joint project of the Sunlight Foundation, the National Institute on Money in State Politics, and the Center for Responsive Politics. On the site you can search by contributor, recipient, year, and many other factors to learn about the state of judicial elections in your state. Sample search results are available on the left.
Full disclosure: the Sunlight Foundation works with the three organizations that sponsored this report.
From Moses to James Madison to David Letterman, important ideas come in lists of ten, as do these principles for opening up government information. The list isn’t new: my colleague John Wonderlich wrote about “themes for legislative information publication” in February 2007, and eight open government data principles emerged from a conference organized by internet oracle Carl Malamud and technology publisher Tim O’Reilly in December 2007. However, we have refreshed the principles, expanded upon them, and added details.
The government is increasingly making data available online, partly in response to congressional and presidential leadership and partly from public pressure. The newly released or updated data varies markedly in quality and usefulness; agencies are searching for guidance on how to do better.
These principles are intended to provide a starting point. They are: completeness, primacy, timeliness, ease of physical and electronic access, machine readability, non-discrimination, use of commonly owned standards, licensing, permanence and usage costs. Each one exists along a continuum of openness, and the list writ large is intended as a guidebook, not a rulebook.
We welcome additional ideas and corrections. The document is available here.
 Technically speaking, what we call the "Bill of Rights" was intended to have 12 constitutional amendments, although only 10 were enacted in the 1790s; noted commentator Melvin Kaminsky reports the number of commandments varied over time; and few items from Letterman’s list are actually funny.
 Sunlight provided a grant to the conference.
 More background materials are available here.
A librarian at the Law Library of Congress is asking for your ideas on improving THOMAS via that agency's fantastic new blog, In Custodia Legis, launched this past Monday. Today's blogpost describes ongoing efforts to improve THOMAS, including the creation of “tip of the week” that highlights THOMAS’ lesser-known features, and asks for ideas for future improvements.
I’m sure our friends at OpenCongress and GovTrack have some helpful ideas, and I have a lengthy list, too, but my top suggestion continues to be that the public be granted bulk access to THOMAS data. Congressman Honda explained this best in 2008: “Offering legislative information in a way that other websites can reuse could lead to revolutionary changes in the way our government functions, eventually allowing Congress to better tap into the knowledge and wisdom of the American people.” (I should add that we’re still awaiting the LOC/GPO report on making THOMAS data available in bulk, mandated by P.L. 111-8.)
My other main suggestion concerns what the Law Library has started to do-- bring the public in on the discussion of how to make THOMAS better. Some possible ways to continue in this direction would be to hold regular roundtable discussions, create a users advisory group, regular soliciting and responding to public feedback, and so on. Many people care about the information contained in THOMAS and how it is provided to the public. A partnership between the public and the Law Library can further its mission of providing “research assistance and reference services for United States federal and state legal issues to national and global constituents.”
More information about THOMAS, including some suggestions for improvements, are available here.