Sunlight’s work with government leads to real changes in how we access public information. Below are some of the reforms we have championed.
In May, the White House issued an Executive Order on Open Data that made took significant strides over previous Open Data actions and made use of policy ideas that the Sunlight Foundation has long advocated for. Specifically, the Executive Order reflected Sunlight’s persistent call for stronger listings of agency data, and demonstrated a new path forward for governments committing to open data.
Read more about Sunlight’s work on Open Data here.
President Barack Obama signed the STOCK Act (S. 2038) into law on April 4, 2012. While the ultimate form the bill took was weaker than what we hoped for, Sunlight has long supported the STOCK Act and the increased transparency it will create.
Over the course of the last six months, Sunlight also had a strong hand in shaping some of the provisions in the bill. We guarded against the possibility that the bill would criminalize congressional leaks, and shaped the online disclosure provisions of the bill (requiring downloadable data access for both personal financial disclosures and for new transaction disclosures). We also successfully pushed for the new financial transaction disclosures to be made publicly, which earlier drafts of the bill didn’t require (see the second #3 here).
Read more on our views on the STOCK Act here.
The House of Representatives has led the charge towards better public access to legislative data in three major ways. First, it established a House-wide transparency portal, docs.house.gov, where tremendous amounts of legislative data are made available to the public in machine-readable formats. Second, it established a task force focused on improving public access to the congressional data that supports THOMAS. And third, it held a series of public meetings that provide an important focal point to the communities that are interested in improving access to legislative data.
House-wide Transparency Portal docs.house.gov
The House of Representatives took a tremendous step into the 21st century in December 2011 when the Committee on House Administration unanimously adopted “Standards for the Electronic Posting of House and Committee Documents & Data.” Sunlight has always considered better access to House data to be a priority in the transparency movement.
Taking effect on January 1, 2012, the resolution instructs the Clerk of the House to maintain a single website where the public can access all House bills, amendments, and resolutions for floor consideration in XML. In addition, committees are encouraged to post their documents on that site in XML whenever possible — and searchable PDFs when not — with the expectation that mandatory publication requirements in XML will soon be imposed. The House is also storing video of hearings and markups, and working to implement standards “that require documents to be electronically published in open data formats that are machine readable,” thereby enabling transparency and public review.
On January 13, 2012, the House made good on this promise, launching http://docs.house.gov/, a one stop website where the public can access all House bills, amendments, resolutions for floor consideration, and conference reports in XML, as well as information on floor proceedings and more. Information will ultimately be published online in real time and archived for perpetuity.
After a successful year of making available all plenary level data, the House of Representatives has begun to publish committee-level data, effective January 2013. Docs.house.gov is organized around a new calendar of committee activities which, for the first time, provides a comprehensive advance view of hearings and markups, provides links to witness statements and testimony, adds video and draft legislation, and provides it all in machine-friendly XML.
Bulk Data Task Force
Starting in the fall of 2012 and carrying on into 2016, the House has held a series of meetings of its “Legislative Bulk Data Task Force” that in many ways is a response to our advocacy around requiring bulk access to the legislative data behind THOMAS. A coalition of organizations led by Sunlight met with the task force in October 2012 and again in January 2013, submitting a series of recommendations and cheering the small progress with respect to THOMAS data that’s already been made.
A less obvious but equally important facet of these meetings is that it brings together, for the first time, all of the internal stakeholders who are responsible for generating and/or publishing legislative information. The importance of these regular meetings cannot be overstated, as it allows for a level of coordination and information sharing that simply has not existed before. It also is a sign of the importance that the Republican and Democratic leadership has assigned to this issue.
Major Transparency Conferences
Also at the end of 2012 and continuing during 2015, the House held three major meetings on public access to legislative information.
In December 2011, the House hosted a modified-hackathon that brought together stakeholders from across the government. The information conversations and networking that took place provided the groundwork for much of what has followed.
The second meeting, taking place on Thursday, February 2, was entitled “Legislative Data and Transparency” and discussed how legislative information is created, how it is made available to the public, what the impact is of current levels of public access, what improved public access would look like from a technological perspective, and the benchmarks to determine and benefits that would come from a truly transparent Congress. A representative from Sunlight gave remarks on benchmarks for measuring legislative data transparency.
The second meeting, taking place in late February and co-sponsored by the UN and the International Parliamentary Union, brought together representatives from parliaments and CSO from around the world, and was entitled “Achieving Greater Transparency in Legislatures through the use of Open Document Standards.” A Sunlight representative made remarks at the convening.
We complained in 2010 that there was no single place where citizens, journalists, and legislative staff can access information about the budget and recommended a “unified portal” linking to all the online information regarding the budget decision-making process. Ellen Miller, our Executive Director, testified not once but twice before members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in regards to federal spending transparency. We also launched Clearspending, a site devoted to our analysis of the data behind USASpending.gov. This analysis involved the examination of millions of rows of data and found over a trillion dollars’ worth of incorrect spending reports.
In 2011, the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2011, or DATA Act, was introduced in the House by Rep. Darrell Issa. This legislation would build upon the success of the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board — the independent body that reports upon recovery spending — by creating a board responsible for publishing and monitoring all federal spending, to be known as the Federal Accountability and Spending Transparency Board. The FAST Board would oversee a successor website to USASpending.gov, which currently tracks all federal spending, but contains nearly $1.3 trillion in spending discrepancies that we identified as part of our Clearspending project.
For more information on this success, check out our blog updates on the DATA Act.
Sunlight has long called for Congressional reports to be made publicly available online. In the 112th Congress, a bill to make federal agency reports to Congress available to the public online garnered bipartisan support in the House, a companion bill in the Senate, and a thumbs-up from the Government Printing Office and transparency advocates.
The Access to Congressionally Mandated Reports Act 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. As things currently stand, the reports are scattered about online, in the infrequent circumstance when they can be found at all.
Representative Mike Quigley (D-IL) introduced the legislation in the House in May (HR 1974), after which it was promptly considered by the Committee on Government Oversight and Reform, endorsed by Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA), and unanimously reported out of committee. The bill currently has 17 co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle, including senior Republican leader Greg Walden (R-OR).
Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) introduced companion legislation in the Senate in July (S. 1411) along with Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Tom Coburn (R-OK). Co-sponsorship by the co-chairs of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee bodes well for its future consideration by that committee.
The Government Printing Office, which would be responsible for implementing the legislation, wrote a letter in May indicating its ability and willingness to put the law into effect. Additionally, a coalition of organizations (including Sunlight) wrote to Congress in support of the legislation.
For more information on this success, check out our blog updates on ACMRA.
The Sunlight Foundation raised the alarm on proposed cuts to the Electronic Government Fund, which would have virtually eliminated crucial transparency programs like data.gov, usaspending.gov, and many others. The proposal would have cut the e-gov fund from $34 million in FY 2010 to $2 million in FY 2011.
Through a combination of lobbying, education, communications, and outreach, the Sunlight Foundation’s Save the Data campaign raised the profile of the program and prompted high-visibility political figures to speak out on its behalf. Sunlight’s advocacy ultimately preserved funding over two budget cycles. Ultimately, the Congress approved e-gov funding at $8 million in FY 2011, and $12.4 million in FY 2012, which allowed many of the programs to continue while providing enough financial cushion for innovation.
Representatives Quigley and Polis took a significant step toward improving what we know about Washington power players by introducing the Lobbying Disclosure Enhancement Act in June 2011. This legislation strongly reflects Sunlight’s lobbying reform priorities.
The bill would require lobbyists to disclose the names of the covered executive branch officials or Members of Congress lobbied (or the name of the employer if the lobbyist meets with staff), the dates of the meetings and the issues discussed. If enacted, speculation about what lobbyists are doing would be replaced with facts contained in databases of lobbying information. The public would have access to answers to questions about lobbying including: Who was the target of the lobbying? What did the lobbyists discuss? When did the lobbying contact take place?
Read more about the impact this legislation would have on lobbying reform here.
As part of a broad campaign for super committee openness, the Deficit Committee Transparency Act sought to require members and staff of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction to disclose lobbying activities and campaign or member-designated political action committee contributions. The legislation was introduced by Rep. David Loebsack in the House and closely mirrors Sunlight’s recommendations for Super Committee openness, including four out of our five main transparency requirements.
See our blog updates to learn more about the Deficit Committee Transparency Act and the other components of our advocacy in regard to the super committee.
Many of the provisions included in the House Rules for the 112th Congress were exactly what we had called for in our proposed Rules reforms.
First and foremost, it looks like a 72 Hour Rule will be included in the House Rules. “In Electronic form” will be the way the online requirement is phrased, and all bills will need to be available to the public “in electronic form” for three calendar days before a vote. This will be a huge victory for the ReadtheBill movement, and for transparency in the way the House considers legislation.
Also, committees are going to be posting far more information online. It’s going to become much easier to follow along as committees pursue their work, and to know what’s going to happen, online, before it happens. Committees will be required to post notice of markups three days in advance, post committee votes online, post amendments online, post disclosures about witnesses who testify, and webcast hearings and markups.
Speaker Pelosi took an important step toward disclosure in posting both the finalized health care bill and financial regulatory reform legislation online for 72 hours prior to House votes. While there is now a higher public expectation of congressional leadership to post all non-emergency bills online for a 3-day period and many legislators are voluntarily committing to doing so, Sunlight encourages passage of H.Res.554 to cement this rule in law.
Five months after Speaker Pelosi’s announcement of a new disclosure policy, the House released its quarterly Statement of Disbursements online for the first time in November of 2009 and has continued to release them on a quarterly basis. The Senate recently followed suit, adopting an amendment offered by Senator Tom Coburn to the Fiscal Year 2010 Legislative Branch Appropriations Act that will require all disbursement reports to be posted online beginning in 2011. Sunlight first proposed posting congressional disbursements online in its 2008 working draft of the Transparency in Government Act.
In March of 2010, Representatives Mike Quigley and Darrell Issa joined together to create the Congressional Transparency Caucus, a bipartisan group of lawmakers committed to bringing transparency and accountability issues to the legislative forefront. The caucus boasts more than 30 members and continues to grow. To support the goals of the caucus, Sunlight created an Advisory Committee on Transparency tasked with educating Members and their staff on transparency-related issues, problems, and solutions.
Sunlight-endorsed language was included in the conference report of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act that requires the disclosure of the names of all non-government members serving on any advisory, technical, or professional committee supporting the Financial Services Oversight Council.
A Sunlight-supported amendment was successfully included in the House-passed version of the DISCLOSE Act (and in the still-pending Senate version of the bill, too). The amendment, sponsored by Representative Susan Davis, requires new disclosures to be filed electronically with the Federal Election Commission, and requires bulk access to those filings.
On July 28, 2010, the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee held its second debate on Senator Tom Coburn’s bill, S.3335, and reported the bill out of committee by a vote of 11 to 5. The bill requires Congress to establish and maintain a centralized, publicly accessible website containing all requested earmarks, a change that Sunlight has advocated. A companion bill was also simultaneously introduced in the House this May by Representatives Bill Cassidy and Jackie Speier. Sunlight provided input on the bill, largely based on the Reporting Group’s experience of using earmark disclosures in its work.
Introduced by Representative Steve Israel in the House and Senator Jon Tester in the Senate, the Public Online Information Act (POIA) requires executive branch agencies to publish all publicly available information on the Internet in a timely fashion and in user-friendly formats. It also creates an independent, bipartisan advisory committee to help develop government-wide Internet publication policies. POIA grew from Sunlight’s reform agenda, and also from Senior Technology Consultant Andrew Rasiej’s panel at the Personal Democracy Forum in 2009.
Sunlight has long supported the passage of an omnibus transparency bill. The Transparency in Government Act, sponsored by Representative Mike Quigley, updates current congressional disclosure requirements to make more information about lawmakers and lobbyists, congressional staff, and the executive branch meaningfully accessible to the public, with an emphasis on digitizing and publishing congressional information online. This bill builds on the Transparency in Government Act created by the Sunlight Foundation in 2008, and refined through the site PublicMarkup.org, where comments and responses were added directly to the bill.
In 2007, the Open House Project proposed the loosening of rules governing what lawmakers can post to their official web sites. In September of 2008, the Senate Committe on Rules and Administration approved new rules to allow lawmakers to post content from third party sites such as YouTube, Flickr, Twitter, and others. The House followed suit a month later, joining the Senate in updating the arcane guidelines that govern how Members of Congress use the Internet.
“On top of that, they’re beginning to make data available in standard, extensible, machine readable formats. They’re moving beyond COBOL (which apparently is celebrating its 50th anniversary!) towards CSV, XML and RSS, alongside PDF and fairly solid HTML interface ”
“The Government Printing Office will today release, for the first time, the XML version of the Federal Register available to the public, online, featuring the Federal Register back to the year 2000.”
“According to one estimate, a transcript or electronic recording is available online for only about one-half of all Senate committee and subcommittee hearings. Only for one-half of those hearings is there made available a transcript that the public can actually access. That number is far too low. There is no reason why, in this day of modern technology and communications, we should not be able to achieve a goal of 100 percent.”
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