Will the House’s Leg Spending Bill Match Its Transparency Priorities?


In the last 18 months, the House of Representatives has made significant strides towards greater openness and transparency in congressional deliberations, but significant work remains. The Legislative Branch Appropriations Bill for 2013, which was marked-up by a subcommittee last week, presents a major vehicle for the House leadership to make good on its promise to implement common-sense transparency measures this session.

While there are many issues that can be addressed a number of different ways, Sunlight will be looking at  the full committee markup to see if the bill:

— Provides bulk access to THOMAS data

— Fully funds the Office of Congressional Ethics

— Requires Publication of  CRS Reports online

— Publishes the Constitution Annotated online as it’s updated in XML

— Reinstates the Office of Technology Assessment

— Makes reports to Congress available online

— Publishes House spending information in an appropriate format for the data

Improve Public Access to THOMAS Data

THOMAS was created by Congress to make legislative information freely available to the public, but the Library of Congress has not kept up with best practices. One such practice — “bulk access” — would ease the development of new tools and technologies by publishing THOMAS data files online, promoting accurate and timely information dissemination. Congress has expressed its support for bulk data as have many organizations, but the Library continues to stall despite a 2008 memo describing how easy it would be to implement.

At the recent legislative subcommittee hearing, Rep. Honda mentioned that text has been inserted into the committee’s report that would in some way address the bulk data question. The last time this happened, the language was watered down sufficiently so that the Library of Congress successfully evaded its obligations over the last half a decade. We hope the bill will contain these two provisions:

(1) Congress directs the Library of Congress to implement bulk access to THOMAS within 120 days of passage

(2) Congress directs the Library of Congress to immediately create an advisory committee on improving public access to legislative information that is composed of people inside and outside of government.

Fully Fund the Office of Congressional Ethics

The Office of Congressional Ethics is the House of Representatives’ independent ethics watchdog. It came into existence in March 2008 after a series of corruption scandals prompted congressional leaders to explore creating a transparent, outside enforcement entity. While OCE is not as robust as originally contemplated, it plays a crucial role in ethics oversight. Last year, the office survived a counterproductive effort by nearly 100 members of Congress to significantly reduce its funding. This year’s appropriations bill maintains OCE’s funding at $1,548,000, which is the same level as last year. We believe that OCE should be strengthened, but at a minimum, its funding should be sustained at least at this level.

Publish CRS Reports Online

Congressional Research Service reports undergird the public’s understanding of Congress, but CRS no longer directly releases the reports to the public. As a consequence, while many reports used by citizens, courts, and government employees are on the internet, they are often out-of-date, and a fair number are available only for a fee or not at all. By comparison, sister agencies like CBO and GAO regularly publish reports online. For more than a decade, organizations and members of Congress have urged that CRS reports be publicly available, and CRS concerns have been refuted by a former counsel to the House of Representatives. The reports are already digitized and available on Congress’s intranet; it would take a trivial effort to publish them online.

During the markup of the 2012 Appropriations Bill, Rep. Leonard Lance introduced an amendment that would have required the Clerk of the House and the Secretary of the Senate to maintain a website containing CRS Reports and Appropriation products while protecting confidential advice from CRS. Similar legislation has been introduced by Rep. Quigley. We hope that House Appropriators will move to make these reports more readily available to the public.

Release the Constitution Annotated Online

The Constitution Annotated (or CONAN) is a continuously-updated 100-year-old legal treatise that explains the Constitution as it has been interpreted by Supreme Court. Maintained by CRS and printed by GPO, a hard copy is published (and put online) only once a decade, with printed updates every two years. However, CONAN is updated frequently, with those updates available on Congress’ internal website. In November 2010 (18 months ago), the Joint Committee on Printing directed that the continuously-updated version of CONAN be made available online as a searchable PDF, but it still is not. Many organizations have asked that the underlying document be published online in its original (XML) format, which is more user friendly than a PDF, and would take minimal effort to release.

This upcoming year, the Constitution Annotated will be up for its once-a-decade print edition. With at least 4,870 statutorily mandated copies, at an estimated cost of $226, the House and Senate will pay over $1.1 million for a document that will go out of date almost immediately. We suggest that some of these costs may be recouped by asking House offices if they wish to receive a print copy, as a continuously updated web version is already made available to all congressional offices. Regardless, we urge that the web version that is already made available to congressional offices also be made available to the American people in its web friendly format. While publishing the document as a PDF would be a small step forward, the best use of taxpayer dollars to maximize usability would be to publish it in XML, the format in which it is prepared.

Other Provisions

Sunlight support additional measures in the Legislative Branch Appropriations bill. Those provisions include:

The reinstatement of the Office of Technology Assessment, as proposed by Rep. Rush Holt last year. OTA provided Congress http://sunlightfoundation.com/blog/taxonomy/term/Office-of-Technology-Assessment/ with the “means for securing competent, unbiased information concerning the physical, biological, economic, social, and political effects” of technology.

Inclusion of the Access to Congressionally Mandated Reports Act, which would would gather together all reports to Congress from federal agencies in one place. It requires that they be published online by GPO in bulk, in open formats, and in a timely fashion, so that people can easily learn about the work of the federal government. The legislation would not require any additional appropriation, and would bring much needed transparency and coordination. It has already passed the Committee on Oversight and Government reform, was introduced in the Senate, and is awaiting action by the House.

Avoiding decreasing funding levels for the House of Representatives and certain legislative support agencies below the subcommittee proposal. Funding for the House has already diminished by at least 10% over the last two years. This raises the concern that congressional staff may become more susceptible to influence from lobbyists, and that support entities (like GPO, the Clerk, and the Library of Congress) that have transparency roles will be less able to fulfill their missions.

Publishing the House Expenditure Reports in a data-friendly format such as CSV. The quarterly reports contain all spending by the House of Representatives, and are currently published online as a PDF. Starting in 2009, then Speaker-Pelosi began publishing House Expenditure Reports online, which was a significant step forward in making them available, as they had only been published in giant books. Unfortunately, publishing columns of data in a PDF does not allow for the data to be analyzed. Simply put, we’re only halfway to House spending transparency. The Sunlight Foundation goes through significant effort to scrape the data from the PDFs and put them into spreadsheets, but this should really be done by the House. It would increase accuracy and timeliness — and so long as the House releases the information, it should do so in the most useful way possible.