Today we are pleased to release a report on improving public access to legislative information. The report (PDF, DOC, ODT) is the result of a collaborative effort that was prompted by the House Leadership's recent statement endorsing bulk access and the questions raised in a committee report accompanying the House Legislative Branch Appropriations Bill.
The House Appropriations Committee had apparently tweaked its report language regarding bulk access to legislative information. The report approved by the Committee has been replaced on website, but I have a copy of the original. Here's how the final paragraph has changed:
Accordingly, and before any bulk data downloads of legislative information are authorized, The Committee directs the establishment of a task force composed of staff representatives of the Library of Congress, the Congressional Research Service, the Clerk of the House, the Government Printing Office, and such other congressional offices as may be necessary, to examine these and any additional issues it considers relevant and to report back to the Committee on Appropriations of the House and Senate.
What does this mean? It's responsive to one of the concerns we raised about the language, that "the report language is terribly overbroad: it prohibits the establishment of bulk data downloads of legislative information prior to the reporting back of the task force." At least, as a matter of law, efforts around bulk access will not be frozen. Given that this restrictive language was inserted in the first place, it remains to be seen whether efforts around bulk data will continue as a matter of practice. (We have some reassurance on this count from the Speaker's Office.)
All the other concerns we raised before remain:
Why doesn't the task force include non-governmental participants if its focus is releasing information to the public?
When must it report back? There's no deadline for action.
Will draft reports be made available to the public for comment? Will meetings be open?
Why will the final report only be given to appropriators? It should be available to all members of Congress and to the public as well.
How are the issues entrusted to this task force any different form the issues already addressed by the Library of Congress in this 2008 memo? Where are any follow-on reports, contemplated in that memo, that engaged in "an examination of permanence and authentication of legislative data, along with any attendant issues, risks and workload?"
While we'd prefer the task force be open and transparent, to a large extent it is a red herring. The issues that it has been tasked have either been addressed previously or are largely irrelevant. It's important that people continue to call and write their members of Congress.
Below the jump is the full text of the revised report language.
During the hearings this year, the Committee heard testimony on the dissemination of congressional information products in Extensible Markup Language (XML) format. XML permits data to be reused and repurposed not only for print output but for conversion into ebooks, mobile web applications, and other forms of content delivery including data mashups and other analytical tools. 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.
The GPO currently ensures the authenticity of the congressional information it disseminates to the public through its Federal Digital System and the Library Congress's THOMAS system by the use of digital signature technology applied to the Portable Document Format (PDF) version of the document, which matches the printed document. The use of this technology attests that the digital version of the document has not been altered since it was authenticated and disseminated by GPO. At this time, only PDF files can be digitally signed in native format for authentication purposes. There currently is no comparable technology for the application and verification of digital signatures on XML documents. While the GPO currently provides bulk data access to information products of the Office of the Federal Register, the limitations on the authenticity and integrity of those data files are clearly spelled out in the user guide that accompanies those files on GPO's Federal Digital System.
The GPO and Congress are moving toward the use of XML as the data standard for legislative information. The House and Senate are creating bills in XML format and are moving toward creating other congressional documents in XML for input to the GPO. At this point, however, the challenge of authenticating downloads of bulk data legislative data files in XML remains unresolved, and there continues to be a range of associated questions and issues: Which Legislative Branch agency would be the provider of bulk data downloads of legislative information in XML, and how would this service be authorized. How would `House' information be differentiated from `Senate' information for the purposes of bulk data downloads in XML? What would be the impact of bulk downloads of legislative data in XML on the timeliness and authoritativeness of congressional information? What would be the estimated timeline for the development of a system of authentication for bulk data downloads of legislative information in XML? What are the projected budgetary impacts of system development and implementation, including potential costs for support that may be required by third party users of legislative bulk data sets in XML, as well as any indirect costs, such as potential requirements for Congress to confirm or invalidate third party analyses of legislative data based on bulk downloads in XML? Are there other data models or alternative that can enhance congressional openness and transparency without relying on bulk data downloads in XML?
The Committee directs the establishment of a task force composed of staff representatives of the Library of Congress, the Congressional Research Service, the Clerk of the House, the Government Printing Office, and such other congressional offices as may be necessary, to examine these and any additional issues it considers relevant and to report back to the Committee on Appropriations of the House and Senate.
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.
Making good on part of the House of Representative's commitment to increase congressional transparency, today the House Clerk's office launched http://docs.house.gov/, a one stop website where the public can access all House bills, amendments, resolutions for floor consideration, and conference reports in XML, as well as information on floor proceedings and more. Information will ultimately be published online in real time and archived for perpetuity.
The Clerk is hosting the site, and the information will primarily come from the leadership, the Committee on House Administration, the Rules Committee, and the Clerk's office. The project has been driven by House Republican leaders as part of an push for transparency. Important milestones include the adoption of the new House Rules in January 2011 that gave the Committee on House Administration the power to establish standards for publishing documents online, an April 2011 letter from the Speaker and Majority Leader to the Clerk calling for better public access to House information, a Committee on House Administration hearing in June 2011 on modernizing information delivery in the House, a December 2011 public meeting on public access to congressional information, and finally the late December adoption of online publication standards.
Today's effort focuses on House documents, but there is a similar series of requirements for committee and other documents that will be addressed as the Clerk's site is further built out. Three things strike me as particularly important for what has happened today
First, the House made a commitment to do something concrete -- publish documents online in machine-friendly formats by January 2012-- and they did that. All too often, transparency promises fall by the wayside or are beaten back by bureaucracy. This is a commitment made, and one that is being kept. (We will keep a close eye on things, just in case.)
Second, the ongoing process of releasing documents online, in real-time, and in machine-readable manner is a tremendous sea change from the slow and ponderous paper publications that are often late, fairly difficult to use, and unfriendly to computers. PDFs, by themselves, are simply insufficient for transparency purposes, and have been for a very long time, and it's important that we're moving towards making information available in such as a way as to maximize its usefulness.
Third, the House is forging ahead the best it can. It would be ideal to have the Senate joining the House in this effort, or have legislative support agencies taking the initiative, but all too often these joint efforts result in nothing happening. It's important for everyone to make the best progress they can, and that's what's happening here.
It will be fun to see when the next shoe drops.
Are Members of Congress using inside information gathered as part of their jobs to make financial investments (and get rich...er?) That question is at the heart of yesterday's 60 Minutes report. Reporter Steve Kroft accused current House Speaker John Boehner and former speakers Nancy Pelosi and Dennis Hastert, among others, of engaging in a legal form of insider trading. (We first broke the Hastert story in 2006.) What the story didn't explore was how transparency aided Hoover Institution research fellow Peter Schweizer in drawing these connections, and how better transparency would deter problems from arising.
Schweizer's analysis drew upon congressional financial disclosure reports, one of many ethics-related documents that the House and Senate make available to the public. While all these documents should be available online, in real-time, and in machine-readable formats, most are not.* Usually, members of the public must physically travel to the House or Senate and print out ethics documents, one page at a time -- you will not be provided an electronic copy, no matter how much you ask, even though the documents are already digitized. In fact, we compiled the first public list of all the "publicly-available" documents from the House and Senate, with information about how to obtain the reports and what they contain. We also called for the GAO to finally live up to its statutory obligation to review whether the personal financial disclosure forms should be updated.
Looking at the financial disclosure reports, only the House publishes them online; the Senate archaically requires you to go to the Senate in person to ask for this information. If you want to analyze the Senate's financial disclosure reports, you have to re-key the data into a computer by hand; there's no database to facilitate analysis. This is equally true if you want to see which Member or senior staffer has been promised a plum job by an outside company, foreign travel expense reports, legal defense fund contributions, and more. If you're not in Washington, you'd better be willing to book a plane ride to DC; otherwise, you're out of luck.
We won't know how much effort it took to make the connection between congressional activity and investing, which formed the basis of the 60 Minutes report and Schweizer's well-timed book "Throw Them All Out," but it likely was considerable. Without better data, it is hard to tell who actually benefited from trading on inside information. We also don't know the extent to which investors mine data from capitol hill about industry activities to help make investment decisions, and we can't know that until legislation like the STOCK Act (which we wrote about here) becomes law.
But what we do know is that the House and Senate can do much more to be transparent. They need to make it easier for the public to see who is trying to influence them, how they behave while in office, and the work that they're doing. That's why we are advocating for lobbying reform, ethics reform, and a lot more Sunlight on the process.
Update 1: These documents are not available online from the House or Senate, but some third parties, such as the Center for Responsive Politics and Legistorm, have digitized many of the documents. However, it's not always possible to access the data in bulk, and it is possible that the third parties introduced errors in the digitization process.
Update 2: I should also mention that Sunlight gave a grant to CRP for digitization of the personal financial disclosure forms, travel disclosures, and other documents in 2007.
The 2012 campaign fundraising totals, covering January through June, proved record in some cases, with the total amount raised by candidates running for Senate being the highest amount ever reported for that time period in a non-election year at $103.1 million, according to an analysis done by the Federal Election Commission released yesterday.
The FEC’s release also highlighted a 15 percent increase in fundraising by candidates running for House seats in 2012. The total raised by candidates for the House was $182.1 million from January 1 through June 30, 2011. The total for that same time period in 2009 was $132 million. The total amount raised by all 2012 political candidates for the first half of the year is $285.2 million.
Comparing the data released by the FEC for the House to data released in 2009 shows some significant increases in funding for individual incumbent candidates as well. For instance, the first six months of 2011 House Speaker John Boehner proved fruitful as he brought in $6.4 million. During the same time period in 2009, the amount raised by his campaign was much smaller at just over $1 million.
Majority Leader Eric Cantor has also had an increase in fundraising this year compared to 2009, but it was not nearly as monumental as Boehner’s. Cantor raised $2.6 million in the first six months of this year, about $900,000 more than the same time period in 2009.
The FEC highlighted some significant increases in specific types of campaign fundraising as well. House freshmen incumbents – many originally running on the Tea Party platform -- reported raising $32 million through June 30 of this year, 34 percent more than the $9.5 million reported in 2009. The analysis also showed that contributions from individuals to House candidates increased by 21 percent, while contributions from political action committees (PACs) to House candidates increased by just three percent.
By guest blogger Matthew Gerring, Sunlight Labs intern The Washington Post published an article on Wednesday about the personal financial disclosures filed by members of Congress, and the data isn't surprising — the current Congress, like the last Congress, is full of millionaires.
Aside from personal wealth, top politicians in Congress, like John Boehner, raked in millions in campaign contributions during the last election cycle. Here's a look at some of the people and companies mentioned in the article:
- John Boehner, current Speaker of the House, received $6,001,138 in contributions in the last election cycle.
- Eric Cantor, House Majority Leader, received $5,557,405 in campaign contributions.
- 79% of political contributions made by Domino’s Pizza employees and political action committee went to Republicans in the 2009-10 cycle.
- House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi received $2,500,575 in campaign contributions in the 2009-10 cycle.
- One of Pelosi’s top contributors, E&J Gallo Winery, contributed $12,000 to Pelosi, and 75% of its employees’ and PAC’s contributions went to Democrats.
- Paul Ryan, author of the Republican’s budget plan, received $2,836,581 in contributions in 2009-10.
- House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy may have the smallest financial holdings according to the Post, at $114,00, but his fundraising was up there with the best of them — he received $2,013,573 in campaign contributions in 2009-10.
‘Influence Explored’ takes an article from the day’s headlines and exposes the influential ways of entities mentioned in the article. Names and corporations are run through Sunlight’s influence tracking tools such as Influence Explorer and Transparency Data to remind readers of the money that powers Washington.
Yesterday, Speaker Boehner said that he was open to reevaluating subsidies to oil companies. That's a bold step for a Republican legislator: GOP lawmakers receive a lot of support from the oil and gas industry. In fact, 77% of the $65 million that the industry contributed to politicians between 2009 and 2010 went to Republicans. So the Speaker deserves credit for his stated desire to "see all the facts." And we're anxious to help! Let's take a look at some of the current subsidies to oil companies.
Tax Expenditures ~ $3.96 billion in 2010
Oil companies specifically benefited from $3.96 billion in tax expenditures for 2010. Here’s a breakout of the individual tax breaks and their respective amounts:
Tax Expenditures Benefiting Oil Companies, 2010
|Tax Expenditure||$ millions|
|[Expensing of exploration and development costs, fuels](http://subsidyscope.org/tax_expenditures/db/group/37/?estimate=3&year=2001)||$2,040|
|[Temporary 50% expensing for equipment used in the refining of liquid fuels](http://subsidyscope.org/tax_expenditures/db/group/69/?estimate=3&year=2001)||$1,140|
|[Excess of percentage over cost depletion, fuels](http://subsidyscope.org/tax_expenditures/db/group/32/?estimate=3&year=2001)||$610|
|[Amortize all geological and geophysical expenditures over 2 years](http://subsidyscope.org/tax_expenditures/db/group/9/?estimate=3&year=2001)||$150|
|[Exception from passive loss limitation for working interests in oil and gas properties](http://subsidyscope.org/tax_expenditures/db/group/30/?estimate=3&year=2001)||$20|
As you can see, the largest tax break listed is the expensing of exploration and development costs. Essentially, this allows companies to deduct "intangible drilling costs" (such as wages or the cost of materials when constructing a well) from their taxable income immediately, rather than amortizing the costs over several years (the standard for other businesses). Most other companies are required to amortize their expenses over several years because it more accurately measures the net income for each year.
Non-Competed Contracts ~ $4 billion in 2010
The federal government contracts with oil companies to procure fuel for various branches of the government. This is not a subsidy in itself, but it can be considered a subsidy when the contracts are not fully competed. For 2010, the federal government awarded over $4 billion in non-competed contracts to companies to procure oil and petroleum.
Royalty Relief ~ $ billions
By law, the Department of Interior is required to charge royalty fees for the fair market use of public lands and goods extracted from them (typically between 12.5% and 18.75%). However, there exist special exemptions for oil and gas drilling and exploration, both on Interior land and waters in the outer continental shelf that are also managed by the Department of Interior. The reduction in royalties assessed on oil and gas extracted from government owned lands is called royalty relief. While noting the difficulty in generating an accurate estimate, the GAO estimates the cost of royalty relief is in the billions each year. Just for the deep water areas in the Gulf of Mexico, the GAO estimated $21 billion to $53 billion in losses from royalty relief between 1996 and 2000.
Cleanup Costs That Exceed the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund ~$??
The Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund is intended to allow the federal government to respond quickly and efficiently to oil spills. The fund is paid for by a tax on oil produced in or imported to the US. However, the fund has a $1 billion per incident cap. According to the most recent GAO report, the total estimated cost of the Deepwater Horizon disaster is in the tens of billions. To date, $629.5 million of the $1 billion cap has been paid out. If the costs exceed $1 billion, agencies may be required to use their appropriated funds or obtain supplemental funding.
Depending on your definition of subsidy, there are many other ways (less easily estimated in dollars) that the federal government subsidizes oil and gas companies. These may include research and development grants, transportation infrastructure such as pipelines or the military defense of oil shipments. Even setting aside these other possibilities, the data is in: Oil companies benefit from billions of dollars worth of subsidies every year.
Two weeks ago the House of Representatives violated a pledge made by Speaker John Boehner to provide a 72 hour window for all legislation to be viewed by the public before it is brought to the floor for debate by voting on a bill to defund National Public Radio. Today, the House majority is again violating that pledge by voting on the Government Shutdown Prevention Act.
The Government Shutdown Prevention Act, a bill that deems the budget cutting bill passed by the House earlier this year to have passed Congress without the Senate's assent, was introduced on March 30 at 1:13 pm. At the present moment, this bill has not been available for even 48 hours.
The House majority sent the bill to be approved for floor debate by the House Rules Committee under emergency rules. The NPR defunding bill was also considered by the House Rules Committee in an emergency session.
In a post detailing the 72 hour pledge breaking promise on the NPR vote I noted how the Republican majority circumvented their pledge by following a "Read the Bill" rule that they instituted at the opening of this Congress:
Earlier this year the House Republicans changed the House Rules to implement a Read the Bill rule that stating that bills must be available on three calendar days prior to consideration. Sunlight was very pleased to see the new House Rules incorporate language that strengthens the public's ability to see legislation online before votes. We've also recognized that this rule might be artfully evaded through a variety of means, one of which is the "calendar day" definition. ... This "calendar day" issue was previously pointed out by Sunlight's Lisa Rosenberg, "the “third calendar day” yardstick for determining whether a bill is ripe for consideration could result in a bill being available for less than 72 hours. Sunlight has advocated using a “72 hour” time frame instead of three calendar days to prevent possible gamesmanship." There still remain many other potential ways in which the current Rule and previous pledges could be subverted. Sunlight Policy Director John Wonderlich pointed these out in a post earlier this year.
This rule is clearly meant to fudge the previous promise by Speaker Boehner to provide 72 hours of public, online exposure for each bill before it is debated. In case you are wondering if Boehner made a 3 day, as opposed to a 72 hours, pledge, please watch below:
There's more video here.
It's worrying that the majority would repeatedly evade a pledge that they made to the American people to make the House a more transparent body. It is especially worrying that the majority would do this on two votes that are clearly not emergencies.
How was the defunding of National Public Radio an emergency requiring the circumvention of normal Rules Committee procedures and the 72 hour pledge? The current Continuing Resolution to fund the government expires on April 8. Why can't the majority wait until Monday to vote on this bill?
The 72 hour rule is needed to give the public not only a chance to read the bills, but a chance to voice their opinion. This is especially important when bills are crafted and pushed forwards for political purposes. The public needs to be involved, but the majority is blocking that involvement for nothing other than the pursuit of quick political wins and message control. This is very disturbing.
Here is the original bill copy with time stamp in the lower left hand corner: XML_362-POST_xml
In the post below I noted that it's a bit surprising that the Read the Bill pledge was subverted by the majority not providing 72 hours of online, public review of the NPR defunding bill because of Speaker John Boehner's many public pledges that specify that 72 hour time frame.
Here's a selection of the many, many times that Speaker Boehner pledged 72 hours of public review for all bills.
Why not wait the extra 20 hours?