Over the last few days, there’s been a good deal of talk about the ethics requirements going into effect for Senate Committees. Later today, the Senate Finance Committee is scheduled to reconcile the rules of their committee with the requirements of the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, often referred informally as "the ethics reform bill". (Sean Moulton of OMBWatch tipped us off to this fact first in this OHP Google Group Thread.) (more)
The committee rules, as they stand, contradict the new requirements of S1, specifically section 513, which requires public committee proceedings to be posted online within 21 days of the hearing. I expect that other committees will have to deal with this issue, and the Finance Committee should be applauded for taking the provisions of S1 seriously, and recognizing that their rules will need to be updated to accommodate its requirements.
Committees, as they adapt to new expectations for online information access, should also recognize that these stipulations are only a (very necessary) first step. Meaningfully access to committee proceedings is only possible through real-time disclosure and digital records management. This would enable citizens to follow along with hearings that pertain to their interests or expertise as they happen, and also give members of Congress and their staff new tools to help them do their jobs more effectively. (Multiple committee hearings, floor votes, interviews, staff meetings and who knows what all happen at the same time, the least we can do is make sure members of Congress can find out what happens in the meetings of the committees on which they serve.)
This disclosure, as outlined in the Open House Project report (committee section), must first be timely. Committee staff have expressed real concerns about posting official transcripts in time, and one solution to that concern may be to post unofficial versions of transcripts first. In any case, making public access a priority should enable best practices to quickly emerge, and I’m confident in the committees ability to post proceedings quickly. Senator Salazar was confident of this fact as well, as he remarked when introducing the amendment to the Senate bill: "I should also add that the amendment will create no serious burden for the committtees". (link)
OMBWatch also mentions in their note that multiple formats for proceedings are vastly preferred to the one-of-the-above approach that S1 requires. Not only does this make it easier to watch, digest, quote, or share, but this also will make the committees more likely compliant with the section 508 accessibility standards, giving citizens, staff, and members with disabilities access to records of proceedings. (Patrice McDermott of OpenTheGovernment.org has also vocally supported robust committee disclosure requirements.)
Finally, our discussion of implementing S1 has led us to realize that new standards for posting public information online lead inevitably to new challenges in digital records management and preservation. If the committee Web sites become the go to source for committee related information (where before there was no digital source), then who becomes responsible for this digital history? Committee documents become the property of the National Archives (specifically the Center for Legislative Archives) after each Congress. As I observed in the previous discussion of this topic, it may end up being easier to get committee documents online than it will be to get them to stay there. Ideally, I think committees should probably maintain jurisdiction over their documents, and have an easy procedure to link to an archive of previous committee procedures.
Kudos to the Finance Committee (and especially Senator Salazar) for getting the proceedings requirement introduced, and for following up more than year later.