Representative Quigley introduces updated Transparency in Government Act (TGA)

Earlier today, Congressman Mike Quigley (D-IL) introduced a comprehensive open government transparency bill on the floor of the United States House of Representatives. The aptly titled “Transparency in Government Act” (PDF) (summary) coincides with Sunshine Week, the annual effort to stimulate a national dialogue about the iopen government and freedom of information.

“The public’s trust in government has reached historic lows, causing many Americans to simply give up on Washington,” said Representative Quigley. “But the mission of government matters, and we can’t lead in the face of this deficit of trust. The Transparency in Government Act shines a light on every branch of the federal government, strengthening our democracy and promoting an efficient, effective and open government.”

As it has in its previous two iterations, the transparency bill has received strong support from most of the major government watchdog and transparency groups in Washington, including Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), the Sunlight Foundation, Data Transparency Coalition, the Center for Responsive Politics, the Center for Effective Government, the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).

As Matt Rumsey noted at the Sunlight Foundation blog, this iteration of TGA is the third version to be introduced since 2010:

As we noted at the time, the original bill was inspired in part by model transparency legislation put together on PublicMarkup.org, a project of the Sunlight Foundation.

The 2014 version of the TGA includes a number of Sunlight Foundation priorities including, but not limited to, enhanced access to the work of congressional committees and Congressional Research Service reportsimprovements to the current lobbying disclosure regime as well as increased transparency in federal contracting, grants and loans.

The prospects for TGA to pass through the entire House don’t appear to be much better than the prior two versions. That said, as CREW policy director Daniel Schuman wrote today, the bill is a deep reservoir of transparency ideas that Congress can draw upon to amend other legislation or introduce as stand-alone bills:

  • Greater congressional accountability through improved disclosure of foreign travel reports, gift reports, how members of Congress spend their official budgets, and greater disclosure of personal financial information.
  • Greater congressional transparency through improved access to the work of committees (including meeting schedules and transcripts) and greater contextualization of floor votes.
  • Empowering public understanding of congressional work through public access to Congressional Research Service reports.
  • Better tracking of lobbying by broadening the definition of lobbyist, improving the tracking of lobbying activity (in part through the use of unique entity identifiers), and more frequent disclosures by lobbyists of political contributions; improved access to information on lobbying on behalf of foreign entities; and public access to statements by grantees and contractors certifying that they have not used money awarded by the federal government to lobby (the SF-LLLs).
  • Enhancing transparency for contracts, grants, and loans through improved data quality, better disclosure (including electronic) and improved compliance.
  • Making the executive branch more transparent by requiring online access to White House and executive branch agency visitor logs, providing centralized access to agency budget justifications, and allowing the public to see how the Office of Management and Budget OIRA changes draft agency regulations.
  • Improving transparency of non-profit organizations by requiring non-profit tax forms (990s) to be available online in a central location (replacing the current ad hoc disclosure system).
  • Improving the Freedom of Information Act by publishing completed requests online in a searchable database and requiring notice of efforts to carve out exemptions to FOIA. (Ourrecommendations go even further.)
  • Opening up federal courts by requiring live audio of Supreme Court hearings, publishing federal judicial financial disclosures online, requiring a Government Accountability Office study on the impact of live video-streaming Supreme Court proceedings, and requiring a GAO audit of PACER.
  • Require annual openness audits by GAO that look at whether data made available by the government meets the eight open data principles.

In aggregate, this is a bright beam of sunshine from Congress that everyone should stand behind, from citizens to legislators to advocates. The Project for Government Oversight is strongly supportive of its provisions, writing that “there is a lot to like in this bill, including more transparency for Congress, lobbying, the executive branch, and federal spending on contractors and grantees.”

Taken one by one, the individual provisions in the bill are well worth considering, one by one, from bringing the Supreme Court into the 21st century to FOIA reform.

If Representative Quigley’s bill can attract the attention of Congressional leaders and legislators across the aisle who have professed support for open government and transparency, maybe some more of these provisions will move forward to enter the Senate, though that body has shown little appetite for moving legislation forward in the 113th Congress to date.

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