If not now, when?
Neither the House nor the Senate maintain any reasonable database of lawmaker votes. And while the House releases their votes in structured format, the Senate does not. There has long been a push to get Congress to adapt to changes that happened online a few years ago, but there has been minimal progress in the Senate. And yet, there is still hope.
Sen. Jim DeMint is circulating a “Dear Colleague” letter asking Rules and Administration Committee chair Chuck Schumer and ranking member Robert Bennett to release roll call votes in XML format to allow the public to interpret “our votes on its own.” Tom Jones, a staffer for Sen. DeMint, explains the importance of this move to XML at The Next Right:
Currently the Senate posts its votes in HTML (HyperText Markup Language). In 1999, this was acceptable. But today plain HTML is the technological equivalent of a rotary telephone, adequate for a basic service but unable to perform the variety of functions modern technology now allows.
Instead of HTML, Senator DeMint is asking that votes be posted in XML (Extensible Markup Language). Without going to deep into the technology, XML would allow roll call votes in the United States Senate to be disseminated in a format that anyone can download, parse, disseminate, and distribute in any form they see fit. By having an authoritative XML stream provided by the Senate, application developers could build databases that could overlay different types of data onto Senate votes, public interest groups could match up policy background with votes, or any of a hundred other possible applications. The result would not be merely some whiz-bang technology, but rather a better informed electorate.
Unfortunately with the current HTML formatting, the best we can hope for is that outside groups successfully “scrape” the Senate webpage for votes and repackage the data on their website. This forces the public to either pay for the information from other websites or to rely on data which can be prone to errors. Such basic democratic information, how elected officials vote on important issues, should be available in the most transparent format, free and accessible to all Americans.
Like Sen. Lieberman’s resolution to free CRS reports, this is an easy win for the Senate. Unfortunately, some senators will resist this move, as they fear easy access to their voting record could provide opportunities for others — the public, opposition campaigns — to make up their own minds with senatorial spin.
This reasoning is simply not legitimate in the present day. There is already a presumption of freedom for public information in the public; senators should take heed. If you want to urge your senator to sign on to Sen. DeMint’s letter to the Rules Committee, you can find their contact information here.
Below is the full letter written by Sen. DeMint:
Senator Charles Schumer, Chairman Senator Bob Bennett, Ranking Member
Committee on Rules and Administration Committee on Rules and Administration
305 Russell Senate Office Building 305 Russell Senate Office Building Washington, DC 20510 Washington, DC 20510
Dear Senators Schumer and Bennett:
We are writing today to ask you to change the Senate’s policy on the publishing of roll call votes so they are made available to the public in an XML format, in addition to what is provided on the Senate website today.
As Americans increasingly turn to internet to stay informed, the Senate as a body has a duty to promote timely and accurate reporting of our actions through the most current and effective technologies. Voting is the most basic Senate action and is of crucial importance to the public. Yet the Secretary of the Senate is constrained by an antiquated policy on how roll call votes can be published on the Senate website.
The Secretary of the Senate and the Sergeant at Arms have made strides in the development of the Senate website and the lobbying disclosure database. However, it is our understanding that the Rules Committee does not permit the Secretary to use “XML” for online voting records.
It is crucial that the Senate add XML. XML is more than merely a data format; it promotes the ability of citizens, the public, and the press to access and analyze Senate roll call votes. The addition of XML will allow the public to use computers to search, sort, and visualize voting records in new ways. While the costs associated with this transition would be negligible, the impact on transparency would be profound.
It is troubling that the current policy makes it more difficult for the public to access and disseminate information about Senate roll call votes. This policy has created a situation where outside groups are forced to create databases that are more likely to contain errors and omissions. The public should not have to resort to subscription-based or mistake-ridden databases to easily obtain this information.
We understand the policy was originally implemented because “Senators want to provide their voting records to their constituents themselves.” The idea that the Senate would intentionally hamstring the distribution of roll call votes so Senators could put a better spin on them is concerning. The public is capable of interpreting our votes on its own.
The House of Representatives has been using XML for approximately five years with no adverse effects. It is time for the Senate to change its policy on sharing XML data and make roll call vote information easily available to the public. Thank you for your attention to this matter. We look forward to working with you improve the Senate’s legislative transparency in this way.