Earlier today, Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader Cantor and the Government Printing Office announced an improvement in how legislation is made publicly available. Starting in the 113th Congress, GPO will make all bills available for bulk download in XML format. While this doesn't change much from a technological perspective, it does mark a significant change from a policy perspective.
With 67 new representatives and 12 new senators just sworn in, it's likely that many members of the 113th Congress are still learning the way to their offices. As they get settled, here are 5 recommendations that they (and their colleagues) could implement right now to be more transparent.
- Create an Online Guest Book
Starting the day they they were sworn in, lobbyists, well-wishers, and constituents have streamed into member offices. While visitors to the White House are listed online, the same isn't true for visitors to congressional offices. At their front doors, representatives should set up an electronic guest book where visitors are encouraged to type in their names, briefly summarize why they're visiting, and say whether they're a federally registered lobbyist. That information should be posted on the member's website.
In addition, members should post online their just completed daily schedule of activities, as maintained by their scheduler, at the end of each day. It will help people better understand what they do on a daily basis.
- Who's Who in the Office
Most meetings that take place in a congressional office are with staff, not the representative. Each staffer is the member's point person for a particular topic. All offices should post online a list of staff working in the office and the issue areas they handle. (Some already do this.) This info is already available from private companies for a fee, but it should be available for everyone.
The United States Senate is a creature of its rules. Through its standing rules, laws and resolutions, precedents, and the consent of its members, the upper chamber carefully controls how legislation can be promulgated and debate can take place.
Unlike the House of Representatives, which must vote on its rules every Congress, the Senate rarely reconsiders its standing rules in their entirety. An opportunity may arise, however, with the current debate over changing how the filibuster works. Here are Sunlight's major recommendations for updating the Senate's rules.
The House Rules Committee released a resolution earlier today that contains proposed rules for the House of Representatives for the 113th Congress. It also released a summary of the proposed changes. These standing rules govern most facets of how the House operates, and the House Republican Conference will meet on January 2nd to consider the proposal. (In addition to considering the rules for the House, we expect that the Republican Conference will adopt and then make its own rules available online for the 113th Congress.)
In December, the Sunlight Foundation released recommendations on how the House should update its rules to be more transparent. We are pleased to note that the resolution would expand the House's anti-nepotism rule to include grandchildren and reauthorizes the Office of Congressional Ethics. We are still studying the other changes. We had hoped that the House would adopt a chamber-wide presumption in favor of public access to information as well as create a public index of the information it holds, but that doesn't seem likely at this time.
When you add together the changes the House made at the start of the 112th Congress (which we redlined here and made recommendations regarding here), the 3 transparency conferences it held during the 112th (including a hackathon), the release of the transparency portal docs.house.gov, rules for publishing documents online, and much more, it's clear that the House in a number of respects has become a more transparent institution over the last two years. We hope that the leadership's enthusiasm for openness does not wane, which can become a concern the longer a party stays in power.
Do campaign contributions affect the likelihood that a member of congress has publicly spoken out after the Sandy Hook School shooting? The answer appears to be yes, and by a lot. Our review found that a representative who received significant campaign support from the NRA was more likely to keep his or her mouth shut about the shooting -- speaking out at 2/3s the rate of an average member of congress.
With President Obama’s public inauguration in just under six weeks, and the start of the new Congress in four, what happens now will set the tone for the next few years. Here are 3 major transparency developments that we’ll be watching to develop by Inauguration Day.
(1) President Obama’s Second Inaugural should return to his themes of making government work for the people, not the special interests, by embracing comprehensive lobbying reform and bringing transparency to dark money’s role in politics.
During the first campaign, candidate Obama said, “I am in this race to tell the corporate lobbyists that their days of setting the agenda in Washington are over.” While some efforts have been made to require better lobbying transparency, the administration has been lax in enforcing its own disclosure rules, largely ignoring important lobbying disclosure bills like the LDEA. While it was much more active with urging the adoption of post-Citizens United transparency requirements for campaigns, the DISCLOSE Act has failed to pass the Senate and the administration declined to act on its own. Just recently, it stoked outrage by going to corporations to fund inaugural activities. In his second inaugural, the President should recommit his administration to weakening the undue power special interests have in setting Washington’s agenda by adopting an affirmative agenda for lobbying reform and campaign finance transparency. We have a few suggestions to help them get started.
(2) As the debate over spending, prompted by the fiscal cliff, comes to a head, negotiations over its resolution should be public, and the government should improve disclosure on how it raises and spends money.
President Obama and congressional negotiators are keeping the public largely in the dark about negotiations over the fiscal cliff. We believe our elected officials can do better, and have called on them to “commit to ensuring that any legislation resulting from the negotiations is online for 72 hours prior to consideration in Congress and that any side agreements, including promised votes on future legislation, are also made public.” At the same time, the fight over rebalancing the government’s books may incorporate a discussion over making information about federal spending available to the public. Legislation that would do this, known as the DATA Act, has already passed the House and is pending in the Senate. By Inauguration Day, we hope that our elected officials will have used the fiscal cliff to mark a new era of financial transparency.
(3) The House and Senate should adopt new rules of procedure that strengthen how they make information available to the public.
In the last Congress, the House required all of its hearings to be webcast, set in motion the creation of a new transparency portal, allowed electronic devices on the floor and official electronic documents online, and overall took a huge step towards greater transparency (including a commitment to improved public access to legislative data by the end of the 112th Congress). While the Senate did not alter its rules at the beginning of the last Congress, the impending fight over filibuster reform may mean that the upper chamber will consider revamping many of its procedures. Here are some changes we’d like to see in the House and Senate to help them open up.
In the run up to the 113th Congress, Democrats and Republicans are meeting separately in the House and Senate to set rules for members of their party. For those who are in the majority -- Republicans in the House and Democrats in the Senate -- the rules for their respective conferences (i.e. party) will affect how legislation emerges from the chamber, who chairs committees, and so on. For example, in the last congress the "ban" on earmarks in the House was accomplished through a rule adopted by the party, not a rule adopted by the House. But what are these rules?
It's hard to know. Only the House Republican Conference has made its rules available to the public online, although the only ones available are for the 112th Congress. They've adopted a highly commendable transparency policy, "rule 29," which states: "To the maximum extent practicable, the Chair shall make the text of matters adopted during the organizational conference held pursuant to rule 3 publicly available in electronic form."
The House Democratic Caucus, the Senate Republican Conference, and the Senate Democratic Caucus do not make their conference rules available to the public. Although I was able to reach staffers at all 3 offices, none could give me an answer, and I'm still waiting for that return phone call.
This is too hard. The rules should be posted online.
By Daniel Schuman and Alisha Green
It comes as little surprise to hill watchers that House staff are underpaid compared to their Senate equivalents, let alone executive branch and private sector staff, but we decided to dig a bit deeper. Just in time for the holidays (and those non-existent public sector bonuses) here's a comparison of key positions in the House, Senate, and executive branch. We admit that the data is a bit old, like the Ghost of the War on Christmas Past, but it's the best we can do with what’s available.
The shaded areas in the bars for the executive branch staff show a range of potential pay.
Congress runs on rules. With the upcoming changeover from the 112th to the 113th Congress, the House of Representatives will adopt new regulations that innervate every aspect of legislative life. The last time it did this, in 2010, the House set the stage for greater openness and transparency in the lower chamber. At that time, Sunlight issued a series of recommendations, some of which were adopted. The House of Representatives made significant progress toward ensuring the people's house belongs to the people, from the new transparency portal docs.house.gov to expanded video coverage of House proceedings to retaining the Office of Congressional Ethics.
In advance of the 113th Congress, we're issuing an updated set of transparency recommendations, each of which would mark a significant step towards increased transparency.
By Daniel Schuman and Alisha Green
One of the foundations of democracy is a legislature that functions well. The ability to assess whether a legislature is functioning properly depends on the public's ability to see what it is doing. Observing what the U.S. Senate is doing, unfortunately, is a difficult task, and one that is unnecessarily hard. Have special interests become increasingly powerful in the Senate because the upper chamber has diminished its capacity to legislate? To evaluate this question, we gathered data about congressional staff numbers, pay, and retention from a number of difficult-to-access (and often non-public) sources.
While the U.S. Senate is often seen as the wiser and more seasoned counterpart to the House, we believe it is suffering from the same affliction that has robbed the lower chamber of some of its ability to engage in reasoned decision making, placing it at the mercy of special interests. Over the past thirty years, the Senate weakened its institutional knowledge base and diminished its capacity to understand current events through a dramatic reduction of one of its most valuable resources: experienced staff.