The rules of the House and Senate have extraordinary influence. The Constitution, in granting each chamber the ability to “determine the rules of its proceedings,” has allowed Congress to create the evolving set of processes, norms and standards by which it functions. The rules define legislative order, construct a leadership power structure, lay out the committee system and establish rules for conduct and disclosure.
The Rules of the House are routinely changed every two years at the beginning of each new Congress. While recent reforms have created more disclosure than ever before, congressional transparency reforms must be considered an imperative for congressional leadership. And the robust use of technology can make disclosure into a better ethics enforcer, a more effective educator and a strong arbiter of public policy. The House must redouble its commitment to transparency, and deepen the relationship between constituents and representatives.
The 112th Congress can be the most open and accountable Congress ever, and online transparency can help Congress reach that goal. Sunlight has pored through the Rules of the House and identified a series of reforms. While this list applies specifically to the House, they can apply largely to the Senate as well. To learn more about our other solutions for a more open government beyond rules reform, such as greater campaign finance disclosure, lobbying reform and executive branch transparency, see our Policy Agenda. Citations in brackets below refer to the 111th House Rules.
Disclosure lies at the heart of congressional ethics rules. Yet most ethics-related disclosures are still available only on paper, and only available if an individual physically visits an office on Capitol Hill. All congressional ethics documents that are publicly available should also be made available online. This includes personal financial disclosures, travel reports, recusals, filings regarding negotiations for future employment, etc. They should be made available online, at no cost, in a structured data format. Members of the public should not have to register in order to access ethics filings, so all of Sec 105, (b)(2) should be struck [p. 50].
Ethics reports should also be available at no cost to the public. The new rules should insert “and make publicly accessible online at no cost” and strike “or at a reduced charge” [p. 50, Sec 105, (b)(1)]. The processes by which Members and congressional staff file ethics forms should also be digitized, to enable better public disclosure. See additional research here.
Earmark information should be posted online in a centralized database. This includes earmarks, earmark requests and related documentation. Leadership policies in both chambers have moved in this direction in the last few years, and President Obama called for such a database in the 2010 State of the Union address. Additionally, legislation to enact such a reform has been introduced in the House and Senate (Earmark Transparency Act, HR 5258, S 3335). See these Earmark Resources for extensive background on the House Rules: [p. 26, Rule XIII, 3(a)(2)(f)(1), p. 35, Rule XXI, 9(a)(1), p. 39, Rule XXIII, 17(a)].
Bills should be posted online for 72 hours before final consideration on the floor. In the last two years, this has become routine practice in the House and should now be codified in the House Rules. Rushing legislation to the floor before it can be read or examined by Congress or constituents is unacceptable. The 72 hour “Read-the-Bill” provisions should be incorporated in House Rules. See 72 Hour Rule and readthebill.org. By the same token, all Conference Reports should be made available online for 72 hours [p. 37, Rule XXII, 8(a)(1)(A)].
Legislatures have difficulty in policing themselves effectively. Idiosyncrasies in American campaign finance laws, combined with a patchwork of ethics laws and guidelines have left congressional ethics in an uncertain transitional state. The reforms from the 2007 Honest Leadership and Open Government Act should be expanded and strengthened, and the role of public oversight and transparency needs to be put back to the center of congressional ethics. In particular, the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) should have its budget doubled, at a minimum.
Also, the public ethics filings on which the OCE relies on should be affirmatively posted online without restrictions.
Additionally, there are several other changes in how these bodies should function: md5-cb68418258eda43a0206334970c16dfe
The Congressional Research Service provides nonpartisan expert research on legislative issues to Congress. However, CRS refuses to release its reports directly to the public, even though they are routinely shared by Members with constituents, and other similar bodies, such as the GAO or CBO, publicly share their reports. The Clerk of the House should be directed to make CRS reports available online to the public for free. For background, click here.
The expertly researched and prepared Constitution Annotated (CONAN) should be shared as broadly as possible and give proper public recognition to this ongoing illumination of our country’s founding document. CONAN structured data should be available online for free public access and updated to reflect Supreme Court decisions as they are made. See Constitution Annotated Resources.
The House’s oversight of Web use and franked (free) mail would be strengthened by better disclosure online.
Copies of all franked materials and decisions about franked materials should be posted online, on either the House Clerk’s website or the Franking Commission site.
Clear public guidelines that govern how Members and staff use the Internet should be available online, from the Franking Commission.
Congressional offices often share their priorities within Congress through an email-based “Dear Colleague” system. Even though these messages are shared throughout Congress, there is no publicly accessible way to search their content. The House should create a centralized, publicly-available online database of all “Dear Colleague” letters.
The House receives an enormous variety of reports and documents, many of which are essential descriptions of government activities. The Clerk should make all House documents (H.doc) including appropriations reports and authorization reports, among others, available online. Click here for more background.
Messages received from the Senate or President should be made available online [p. 24, Rule XII, 1].
Reports commissioned by congressional offices or support agencies should be made publicly available online, by default.
Congress has an unfulfilled role as an authoritative source of the Statutes at Large, the official collection of laws that have passed, which is published in chronological order. The Statutes at Large should be published online in a single location.
When congressional websites disappear, we lose a chance to hold Members and committees accountable for their consistency and history. Member and committee websites should be archived from Congress to Congress, and made available in a way that enables committees to link to an archived history of their sites. The National Archives and Records Administration should have the funding, expertise and mandate to reliably archive all official sites.
There are opportunities to increase transparency throughout the Rules of the House. By changing wording or requirements even slightly, congressional procedures can become more open, inclusive and ethical. The changes tighten ethics requirements, add digital or structured data requirements or expand existing disclosures. Other specific changes are included below:
The blanket prohibition on the disclosing of sensitive personal information in historical congressional records should be revised from current lengthy requirements to a shorter time period [p. 5, Rule 7, 3(b)3].
Access to Events
Conflicts Identification and Reporting
Lobbying Disclosure and Limitations
Online Publication of Documents or Records