Congress Online: Legislation, Hearings, Subcommittees, and Ethics Disclosure
By policy interns Jacob Hutt and Eric Dunn
This is the second in a series of blog posts about congressional committee websites. You can see our first post here and our final post here.
In our last post, we reviewed how well committees made their inner workings publicly available. In this post, we look at their pages for hearings, subcommittees, legislation, and ethics disclosure.
Legislation and Markups
It is crucial that bill markups and draft legislation be available online prior to consideration. Committee pages on legislation and markups should include the legislation that was referred to the committee, drafts of legislation, the chairman’s mark, amendments, a summary of amendments, any votes on amendments, and the committee report on the legislation. In general, both House and Senate committees could do a much better job of this.
There were highlights, however: the House Rules Committee features an “Active Bills” page that shows a real-time list of actions taken on a specific pieces of legislation, including the time the bill will reach the floor. The House Natural Resources Committee provides a page for every piece of legislation with a summary, a link to the full text and markup progress, and relevant hearings on the legislation. And the Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources has individual pages for significant legislation passed, such as the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 and the American Clean Energy Leadership Act of 2009. But these were exceptions to the rule. Most committees did not make this information available.
The Best: the House Natural Resources Committee and the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources
On hearing pages, we expected live broadcasts of the hearings, indications of the type of hearing taking place, a list of witnesses, witness testimony, documents submitted to the committee, and a transcript of the hearing. We were pleased to see that all committees make it possible to view hearings online. However, we did not evaluate the extent to which live hearings are made available (all hearings available vs. a few hearings available), which has been a problem for some committees, such as the House Appropriations Committee.
That said, there were clear differences among committees: some advertised their hearings very well (the House Natural Resources Committee); some were a bit difficult to navigate once on the hearings page (the House Judiciary Committee); and some included information that helped users orient themselves on the issues of a specific hearing (the House Energy & Commerce Committee website has background memos on each of the hearing pages).
The Best: The House Energy & Commerce Committee
Although certain committees do their work as a full committee, most hold hearings and debate legislation in subcommittees. We listed many standards for subcommittee pages, suggesting that they should offer the same content as a normal committee page: links to live hearings, copies of witness testimony, legislation the subcommittee was considering, minority leadership information, and more.
We found the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee to be a perfect model for subcommittee pages. They include relevant legislation, resources for veterans, membership information, and jurisdiction. Most of the subcommittee coverage was similar to the Senate Judiciary Committee’s page, which meets many but not all of the recommendations we made for subcommittee pages. By contrast, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and its subcommittee page had almost no substantive information on their subcommittees.
The Best: The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee
One of the hallmarks of transparency is ethics disclosure, whether it is members disclosing their personal incomes or committees disclosing earmark requests by certain members. This was rarely featured on committee websites. We found two exceptions: the Senate Appropriations Committee, which has personal financial disclosure records available for every member of the committee next to their name; and the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee, which identifies specific earmarks that each committee member has requested. (The committee has not updated this information since the House of Representatives imposed a moratorium on earmarks, even though earmarks have continued in a different guise.)
In addition to these committee-specific disclosure efforts, the House Committee on Administration posts monthly financial reports that committees are required to file with the House Committee on Administration. Beyond these required reports, committees should post members’ financial records, as the Senate Appropriations committee has done.
The Best: Senate Appropriations Committee and the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee
Many committees, particularly in the Senate, have work to do in enhancing their content, specifically in the legislative area. More websites need comprehensive legislative webpages where citizens can view the changes made to a bill before it becomes a law. While committees are making good progress on these websites, we hope that as they continue to publish substantive material onto the web, they will remember the need for both accessibility and ease-of-use in publishing this material.