On June 7, the Transparency Caucus of the U.S. House of Representatives hosted a remarkable forum inside of the United States Capitol that featured ten presentations from government officials and members of civil society on innovative tools and technologies. Following … Continue reading
On May 10, the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress in the United States House of Representatives held a hearing on “opening up the process,” at which 4 different experts talked with Congress about making legislative information more transparent,” from ongoing efforts to proposed reforms to the effect of sunshine laws passed decades ago.
If you’re not up to speed on this committee, it was established on January 4, 2019 the House voted in favor of establishing the Select Committee by an overwhelming margin (418-12) by adopting of Title II of H.Res.6, the Rules of the House of Representatives for the One Hundred Sixteenth Congress, with a sole authority of investigating, studying, holding public hearings, making finding, and developing recommendations to modernize Congress – but no legislative jurisdiction nor ability to take legislative action. The committee has has been fairly described by IssueOne as “the best opportunity in decades” for Congress to improve itself, by looking inward.
The two hours of discussion on May 10 mostly added up to good news for good government, with useful summaries of progress opening up Congress to date from the deputy clerk of the House, proposed recommendations and reforms from GovTrack founder Josh Tauberer and DemandProgress policy director Daniel Schuman that would build on that progress, and some skepticism of sunshine in the legislative process from University of Maryland professor Frances Lee.
I attended the hearing and tweeted from it, as has been my practice for nearly a decade in DC:
The thread of tweets above, however is not meant to be comprehensive, nor could it be fully contextualized in the moment. For that, watch the hearing on YouTube, in the video embedded below:
…and read a summary of the hearing from the Congressional Institute, reporting from Federal Computer Week on “transparency through technology” and Roll Call on ongoing development of an “artificial intelligence engine” (applying machine-learning to structured legislative data), and the latest edition of Demand Progress’ First Branch Forecast, in which Schuman summarizes his testimony and aspects of the hearing.
He and Tauberer recommended from appointing a legislative branch Chief Data Officer, releasing structured data that would feed into the clerk’s tool to show how proposed amendments would change bills, and enact a mandate and open standards for a unique identifier for lobbyists across the U.S. government. Whether those ideas make it into the committee’s recommendations remains to be seen, but they’re worth weighing – along with further studying of the value or risk of increasing or decreasing public access to various aspects of the deliberative processes that constitute legislative and oversight activities.
On a meta note, the process on display at this forum was notable for comity between witnesses and members, openness to the public and press, and engagement online.
The medium is still the message, when it comes showing (not telling) how open a given institution is.
While paying attention to the digital component has become downright mundane in 2019, the Committee demonstrated admirable competence, streaming the hearing online at YouTube, publicized it on social media prior to the event, engaged with the public during the hearing, and published testimony on its website afterwards. (Unfortunately, there’s no text transcription of the hearing on the hearing page. Given the committee’s acknowledgement of the importance of accessibility, it should make sure to get transcripts online.)
As at the most recent “Congressional hackathons,” Members of Congress were able to show good government, ethics and transparency, far away from partisan rancor over white hot political issues or Congressional attempts to conduct constitutional oversight of a corrupt administration.
If you’re interested in following the activities of the committee or providing feedback, visit Modernizecongress.House.gov and scrub in: the People’s House will only be as open, accessible, accountable, and effective as we make it – or demand it to be. There’s no one else coming to help.
Imagine searching Facebook, Google or Twitter for the status of a bill before Congress and getting an instant result. That future is now here, but it’s not evenly implemented yet.
When the Library of Congress launched Congress.gov in 2012, they failed to release the data behind it. Yesterday, that changed when the United States Congress started releasing data online about the status of bills.
For the open government advocates, activists and civic hackers that have been working for over a decade for this moment, seeing Congress turn on the data tap was a historic shift.
It took 14 years 9 months 6 days after I asked: Congress is now publishing actual data on the status of legislation. https://t.co/ITtDev12Xs
— Joshua Tauberer (@JoshData) February 24, 2016
Congressional leaders from both sides of the aisle applauded the release of House and Senate bill status information by the U.S. Government Printing Office and Library of Congress.
“Today’s release of bill status information via bulk download is a watershed moment for Congressional transparency,” said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), in a statement. “By modernizing our approach to government and increasing public access to information, we can begin to repair the relationship between the people and their democratic institutions. The entire Congressional community applauds the dedication of the Legislative Branch Bulk Data Task Force, the Office of the Clerk, the House Appropriations Committee, GPO, and the Library of Congress, which worked together to make this progress possible.”
“Building off previous releases of bills and summaries, today’s release of bill status information largely completes the overarching goal of providing bulk access to all the legislative data that traditionally has been housed on Thomas.gov and now also resides on Congress.gov,” said Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD). “This is a major accomplishment that has been many years in the making. It goes a long way toward making Congress more transparent and accessible to innovation through third party apps and systems. I applaud the dedicated civil servants who made this possible at the Legislative Branch service agencies, and I want to thank the Bulk Data Task Force for their leadership in this effort. While this largely completes a major goal of the Task Force, I look forward to continuing to workwith them to further modernize the U.S. Congress.”
The impact of open government data releases depend upon publicy and political agency. Releasing the states of bills before Congress in a way that can be baked in by third party apps and services is a critical, laudable step in that direction, but much more remains to be done in making the data more open and putting it to use and re-use. If the Library of Congress opens up an application programming interface for the data that supplies both Congress.gov and the public, it would help to reduce the asynchrony of legislative information between the public and elites who can afford to pay for Politico’s Legislative Compass or Quorum Analytics that is the status quo today.
In an era when Congress job approval ratings and trust in government are at historic lows, the shift didn’t make news beyond the Beltway. Govtrack.us, which is based upon data scraped from the Library of Congress, has been online for years. Until this XML data is used by media and technology companies in ways that provide the public with more understanding of what Congress is doing on their behalf and give them more influence in that legislative process, that’s unlikely to change quickly.
Update: The House Majority Leader didn’t put S.2520 on Thursday’s legislative calendar (PDF). Per Congress.gov, it was “held at the desk.” We can’t pronounce it dead until 3:30 PM, as the Speaker of the House could bring the bill up by unanimous consent, but FOIA reform in this Congress likely just expired at midnight.
Imagine if an important reform to public access to government information hung in the balance in the United States Congress and the editorial boards of the country’s major newspapers ignored it. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what has happened. Only a few weeks ago, it looked this ‘do nothing Congress’ was actually set to do something: pass much-needed reforms to the Freedom of Information Act. Over the weekend, an unexpected hold in the Senate by Senator Jay Rockefeller put months of bipartisan collaboration in jeopardy. If the U.S. House of Representatives doesn’t schedule a vote tomorrow on the Freedom of Information Improvement Act that passed the Senate on Monday, however, FOIA reform will quietly expire.
Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is urging the House to pass the bill before the 113th Congress ends.
“This legislation is all about government transparency. If House Republicans want this administration to be more accountable, then they must put it on the suspension calendar without delay. Let’s get it done,” Leahy said. “With the sun about to set on this congressional session, the House should not leave this sunshine bill undone, on the table. Time is quickly running out, and the House must act without further delay.
Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA), the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Ranking Member Representative Elijah Cummings (D-MD) have also called on the House to pass the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Improvement Act and send it to President Barack Obama after its unanimous passage in the Senate.
“The FOIA Improvement Act will strengthen FOIA, the cornerstone open government law,” Issa and Cummings said, in a joint statement. “The House unanimously passed companion legislation, H.R. 1211, earlier this year. The FOIA Improvement Act is a bipartisan bill that, after last night’s passage by the Senate, deserves to be taken up by the House and sent to the President.”
Given that FOIA reform passed the U.S. House unanimously 410-0 in February, why aren’t Speaker of the House John Boehner and Minority Leader Representative Nancy Pelosi bringing S.2520 to a vote? One source tells me that banks have sent lobbyists to the offices of House Financial Services members to oppose the FOIA reform and have told staff there that proprietary regulatory information could be released under the bill. FreedomInfo.org is also reporting that banking lobbyists are opposing the FOIA reform bill. This rumored pressure is in addition to the pressure of the same federal agencies that lobbied against the bill in the Senate.
A similar argument was made in the Senate, and it’s by all accounts a bogus one: Exemption 8 of the FOIA provides protection against such disclosure and the “foreseeable harm” standard embraced by this reform would not result in the release of such regulatory records, given that there would be a clear foreseeable harm in their release. As FreedomOfInfo.org notes, “the Senate committee report includes lengthy language underscoring the importance of protecting financial information”:
The paragraph secured support for the bill by the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, Sen. Tom Johnson (D-SD), sources said. The relevant section of the report begins with a caution: “Extreme care should be taken with respect to disclosure under Exemption 8 which protects matters that are “contained in or related to examination, operating, or condition reports prepared by, on behalf of, or for the use of an agency responsible for the regulation or supervision of financial institutions.” The quote is from the FOIA.
The report language (minus footnotes) continues:
Currently, financial regulators rely on Exemption 8, and other relevant exemptions in Section 552(b), to protect sensitive information received from regulated entities, or prepared in connection with the regulation of such entities, in fulfilling their goals of ensuring safety and soundness of the financial system, compliance with federal consumer financial law, and promoting fair, orderly, and efficient financial markets. Exemption 8 was intended by Congress, and has been interpreted by the courts, to be very broadly construed to ensure the security of financial institutions and to safeguard the relationship between the banks and their supervising agencies. The D.C. Circuit has gone so far as to state that in Exemption 8 Congress has provided “absolute protection regardless of the circumstances underlying the regulatory agency’s receipt or preparation of examination, operating or condition reports.” Nothing in this legislation shall be interpreted to compromise the stability of any financial institution or the financial system, disrupt the operation of financial markets or undermine consumer protection efforts due to the release of confidential information about individuals or information that a financial institution may have, or encourage the release of confidential information about individuals. This legislation is not intended to lessen the protection under Exemption 8 created by Congress and traditionally afforded by the courts.
There’s a lot at stake here, and almost no time on the legislative clock. It is, as Sean Vitka wrote for the Sunlight Foundation wrote today, literally do-or-die time for FOIA reform. It’s crunch time. It’s now or (almost) never: if Speaker of the House John Boehner doesn’t bring the bill up for a vote by unanimous consent today, the process begins again in the next Congress, but without key sponsors of the FOIA reforms in the House and Senate occupying the chairs of committees.
“For all of his talk about the desire of House Republicans to hold the Obama Administration accountable, we are shocked and angered that Speaker Boehner would decide to allow a bill that strengthens and reforms the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) die without a vote,” said Danielle Brian, chair of OpenTheGovernment.org and executive director of the Project On Government Oversight, in a statement. “S.2520 is a critical bill that strengthens the FOIA watchdog, the Office of Government Information Services, and would force agencies to finally deliver the levels of transparency that the Administration promised on their first day in office in 2009. We call on Speaker Boehner to do the right thing for the American public and call for a vote on S.2520 before the House leaves for the year.”
Update: On Thursday morning, when he was asked about FOIA reform at a press conference, Speaker Boehner said that “I have no knowledge of what the plan is for that bill.”
“We are particularly concerned that Speaker Boehner has now said that he has ‘no knowledge of the plan’ to pass the bipartisan, bicameral FOIA reform bill,” said Brian, in response. “If accountability and making the federal government answer to the public is really a priority for the Republican Caucus, passing this bill should be a priority. The House passed the House companion bill 410 – 0. The Senate passed the bill by unanimous consent after the open government community waged an all-out war against a last second attempt by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and other independent agencies that are supposed to be on the public’s side to stop the bill. It’s up to Speaker Boehner to put this bill to a vote and create the levels of open government the public needs.”
If the people’s right to know what their government does in their name matters to you, please let your Member of Congress know that FOIA reform matters to you, and let the Speaker of the House know. You can email the Speaker directly through OpenCongress, call him up at (202) 225-6205 and tweet him @SpeakerBoehner. Even if the press won’t represent itself and the people by asking Congress to support the free flow of government information, you can.
Update: FOIA reform failed to pass in the 113th Congress. As Newsweek reported, in an opaque move, Speaker Boehner tabled the government transparency bill. It was never brought up for a vote in the House. Unless the Speaker reconvenes the House, the FOIA bill is likely dead.
“…the fact that the bill was very close and was tabled because of the influence of lobbyists that found a problem in the legislation that didn’t even exist is frustrating not only for those who wanted the bill to pass but for those who want the American democratic process to be a shining light for the world – not an embarrassment,” wrote Scott A. Hodes, at the FOIA Blog.
“For all of his talk about his desire to hold the Obama Administration accountable, we find it unfathomable that that Speaker John Boehner would allow a bill that strengthens and reforms the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to die without a vote,” said Danielle Brian.
In reaction, Senator Leahy made the following statement:
“I am deeply disappointed that last night the House failed to pass the FOIA Improvement Act. This bipartisan bill was reported unanimously by the Senate Judiciary Committee last month, and it was the product of months of hard work by Senator Cornyn and me. Our bill is supported by more than 70 public interest groups that advocate for government transparency and it passed out of the Senate unanimously. I would think that members of the House Republican leadership, who have spent so much time on oversight of the Obama administration, would support the goal of making government more accountable and transparent. But instead of supporting this bill, they have chosen secrecy over sunlight.
“The FOIA Improvement Act would codify what the President laid out in his historic executive order in 2009 by requiring Federal agencies to adopt a ‘Presumption of Openness’ when considering the release of government information under FOIA. This bill would require agencies to find a foreseeable harm if they want to withhold information from the public. Prioritizing the people’s interest in what their government is doing, our bill will reduce the overuse of exemptions to withhold information. Federal agencies have been required to apply this standard since 2009. They also used this same standard during President Clinton’s terms in office. It was only during President George W. Bush’s term of secrecy that this standard was rolled back. It appears the House leadership wants to return to that era. It should not matter who is in the White House, information about what their government is doing belongs to the people.
“In a political climate as divided as this, I had hoped that we could come together in favor of something as fundamental to our democracy as the public’s right to know. That government transparency and openness would not just be the standard applied to the Obama Administration but what is applied to every future administration. The FOIA Improvement Act would have done just that.”
Postscript: Writing for the Sunlight Foundation, Matt Rumsey published a sunny post about the death of FOIA reform.
Sunlight has been strongly supportive of the FOIA Improvement Act because it addresses real world problems faced by requesters every day, specifically targeting overly broad exemptions and limiting unnecessary fees. Just like Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., one of its strongest champions, we aredisappointed that it did not become law.
And yet, we are hopeful for the future.
Most laws never make it out of committee even after repeated attempts spread over multiple years. The FOIA Improvement Act came tantalizingly close to becoming law its first time around.
Rest assured that the FOIA Improvement Act will be reintroduced in the 114th Congress and that the Sunlight Foundation and its allies will be fighting harder than ever for its passage. We want to say a hearty thank you to Leahy, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and everyone else that worked so hard during the 113th Congress to make these needed reforms possible. We’ll see you next year!
The Washington Post, to its credit, did a post-mortem on how this popular government transparency bill died in Congress. The reason the FOIA reform stalled in the House may not simply have been lobbying by the financial industry, however, as had been previously reported.
According to House aides, some lawmakers balked at the legislation because several agencies, including the Justice Department, warned that those making information requests would use the “forseeable harm” requirement as the basis for frequent lawsuits.
This detail led Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, to argue that it was the Justice Department that secretly tried to stop FOIA reform, despite the text of the legislation being almost word-for-word the poilcy that the agency itself embraced in 2009.
The “foreseeable harm” section referred to by the Post would force federal agencies to justify withholding information if they wished to do so. Essentially, they would have to show the information would cause “foreseeable harm” if released. Not exactly a tall order. But what makes the Justice Department’s objection so shocking is that this “foreseeable harm” provision would not deviate at all from the Justice Department’s own policy. In fact, it was based on it.
In a March 19, 2009 memo to all federal agencies, Attorney General Eric Holder himself wrote that the Justice Department would carry out Obama’s aforementioned transparency order by rescinding the Bush DOJ’s more restrictive FOIA rules and designating new ones. From that moment on, Holder declared:
[T]he Department of Justice will defend a denial of a FOIA request only if (1) the agency reasonably foresees that disclosure would harm an interest protected by one of the statutory exemptions, or (2) disclosure is prohibited by law.
Now read the full text of the provision in the just-killed FOIA reform bill that the Justice Department allegedly objected to:
An agency shall withhold information under this section only if a) the agency reasonably foresees that disclosure would harm an interest protected by an exemption described in subsection or other provision of law; or b) disclosure is prohibited by law.
As you can see, the two passages are virtually identical. How does the Justice Department think this provision will lead to more lawsuits it would have to defend if they’re not supposed to be defending those lawsuits in the first place?
The Justice Department is objecting to making its own supposed policy the law, and confirms what many have long believed: the agency does not want to—or have to—comply with its own FOIA rules.
The DOJ has repeatedly been criticized for failing to enforce, and downright ignoring its own FOIA guidance for years, and their stance on transparency in general has been incredibly hypocritical. For example, Holder has claimed hewanted the torture report to be public as soon as possible, meanwhile fighting in court to prevent the release of any documents on its own torture investigation. Likewise, he’s claimed the Justice Department supports a federal shield law so reporters can protect their sources, while at the same time destroying the already-existing reporter’s privilege in the Fourth Circuit.
Writing for the National Security Archive, Nate Jones looked for lessons from the death of the unanimously supported FOIA bill and decried “Janus-faced support for open government.” Here was his key takeaway:
Many people –in Congress, in the agencies, in the White House, in the media– proclaim they believe in open government, but don’t really. To me, that’s the only plausible reason a FOIA bill could garner unanimous approval (thrice in the Senate over the past seven years!) and still die; that’s the only plausible reason agencies whisper that instructions about FOIA currently on the books will ruin the federal government as we know it; that’s the reason for White House silence on the benefits the FOIA Ombuds office not being forced to run its reports though the Department of Justice so they can be “rosified;” that’s the reason the New York Times wins Pulitzers for its FOIA-based reporting, but doesn’t assign a Congressional beat reporter to cover the bill’s death.
How do we overcome these FOIA Januses? First, we must avoid being stalled out. We should force Speaker Boehner to act on his pledge that he “look[s] forward to working to resolve this issue [FOIA reform] early in the new Congress.” FOIA champions Senators Leahy, Cornyn, and Grassley remain in the Senate Judiciary Committee; these senators have an impressive history of defending and working to reform FOIA, no matter which party is in the majorly. Replacing Representative Issa on the House Oversight Committee is Jason Chaffetz (R-Ut); Democratic FOIA champion Elijah Cummings remains. Encouragingly, Chaffetz has said he “wants to address the Freedom of Information Act and the difficulties many have in getting the executive branch to comply with FOIA requests.” Both houses should immediately reintroduce the FOIA bill. More than 440 members who voted for FOIA reform remain in Congress.
On Saturday, December 20, the New York Times editorial board called for the 114th Congress to revisit the freedom to see government records. In doing so, it made no mention of the reporting on the cause of death by this blog, Vice News, the Washington Post, the Hill, Roll Call or Politico, nor lobbying by banks or federal agencies, nor silence by the White House while most of the press looked the other way.
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:
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 reports, improvements 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.”
— Mike Quigley (@RepMikeQuigley) March 13, 2014
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.
A new paper from Yochai Benkler and co-authors at the Berkman Center maps how the networked public sphere led to the Stop Online Piracy Act and Protect IP Act being defeated in the U.S. Congress.
“Abstract: “This paper uses a new set of online research tools to develop a detailed study of the public debate over proposed legislation in the United States designed to give prosecutors and copyright holders new tools to pursue suspected online copyright violations.”
Key insight: “We find that the fourth estate function was fulfilled by a network of small-scale commercial tech media, standing non-media NGOs, and individuals, whose work was then amplified by traditional media. Mobilization was effective, and involved substantial experimentation and rapid development. We observe the rise to public awareness of an agenda originating in the networked public sphere and its framing in the teeth of substantial sums of money spent to shape the mass media narrative in favor of the legislation. Moreover, we witness what we call an attention backbone, in which more trafficked sites amplify less-visible individual voices on specific subjects. Some aspects of the events suggest that they may be particularly susceptible to these kinds of democratic features, and may not be generalizable. Nonetheless, the data suggest that, at least in this case, the networked public sphere enabled a dynamic public discourse that involved both individual and organizational participants and offered substantive discussion of complex issues contributing to affirmative political action.”
One data set, however, was missing from the paper: the role of social media, in particular Twitter, in reporting, amplifying and discussing the bills. The microblogging platform connected many information nodes mapped out by Berkman, from hearings to activism, and notably did not shut down when much of the Internet “blacked out” in protest.
The paper extends Benkler’s comments on a networked public commons from last year.
As I wrote then, we’re in unexplored territory. We may have seen the dawn of new era of networked activism and participatory democracy, borne upon the tidal wave of hundreds of millions of citizens connected by mobile technology, social media platforms and open data.
As I also observed, all too presciently, that era will also include pervasive electronic surveillance, whether you’re online and offline, with commensurate threats to privacy, security, human rights and civil liberties, and the use of these technologies by autocratic government to suppress dissent or track down dissidents.
Finding a way for forward will not be easy but it’s clearly necessary.
Three years on, Republicans in Congress continue to follow through on promises to embrace innovation and transparency in the legislative process. Today, the United States House of Representatives has made the United States Code available in bulk Extensible Markup Language (XML).
“Providing free and open access to the U.S. Code in XML is another win for open government,” said Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, in a statement posted to Speaker.gov. “And we want to thank the Office of Law Revision Counsel for all of their work to make this project a reality. Whether it’s our ‘read the bill’ reforms, streaming debates and committee hearings live online, or providing unprecedented access to legislative data, we’re keeping our pledge to make Congress more transparent and accountable to the people we serve.”
House Democratic leaders praised the House of Representatives Office of the Law Revision Counsel (OLRC) for the release of the U.S. Code in XML, demonstrating strong bipartisan support for such measures.
“OLRC has taken an important step towards making our federal laws more open and transparent,” said Whip Steny H. Hoyer, in a statement.
“Congress has a duty to publish our collective body of enacted federal laws in the most modern and accessible way possible, which today means publishing our laws online in a structured, digital format. I congratulate the OLRC for completing this significant accomplishment. This is another accomplishment of the Legislative Branch Bulk Data Task Force. The Task Force was created in a bipartisan effort during last year’s budget process. I want to thank Reps. Mike Honda and Mike Quigley for their leadership in this area, and Speaker Boehner and Leader Cantor for making this task force bipartisan. I also want to commend the dedicated civil servants who are leading the effort from the non-partisan legislative branch agencies, like OLRC, who work diligently behind the scenes – too often without recognition – to keep Congress working and moving forward.”
The reaction from open government advocates was strongly positive.
“Today’s announcement is another milestone in the House of Representatives efforts to modernize how legislative information is made available to the American people,” said Daniel Schuman, policy director at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). “The release of the US Code in Bulk XML is the culmination of several years of work, and complements the House’s efforts to publish House floor and committee data online, in real time, and in machine readable formats. Still awaiting resolution – and the focus of the transparency community’s continuing efforts — is the bulk release of legislative status information.” (More from Schuman at the CREW blog.)
“I think they did an outstanding job,” commented Eric Mill, a developer at the Sunlight Foundation. “Historically, the U.S. Code has been extremely difficult to reliably and accurately use as data. These new XML files are sensibly designed, thoroughly documented, and easy to use.”
The data has already been ingested into open government websites.
“Just this morning, Josh Tauberer updated our public domain U.S. Code parser to make use of the new XML version of the US Code,” said Mill. “The XML version’s consistent design meant we could fix bugs and inaccuracies that will contribute directly to improving the quality of GovTrack’s and Sunlight’s work, and enables more new features going forward that weren’t possible before. The public will definitely benefit from the vastly more reliable understanding of our nation’s laws that today’s XML release enables.” (More from Tom Lee at the Sunlight Labs blog.)
Jim Harper, Director of Information Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, similarly applauded the release.
“This is great progress toward better public oversight of government,” he said. “Having the U.S. Code in XML can allow websites, apps, and information services to weave together richer stories about how the law applies and how Congress is thinking about changing it.”
Harper also contrasted the open government efforts of the Obama administration, which has focused more upon the release of open government data relevant to services, with that of the House of Representatives. While the executive and legislative branches are by definition apples and oranges, the comparison has value.
“Last year, we reported that House Republicans had the transparency edge on Senate Democrats and the Obama administration,” he said. “(House Democrats support the Republican leadership’s efforts.) The release of the U.S. Code in XML joins projects like docs.house.gov and beta.congress.gov in producing actual forward motion on transparency in Congress’s deliberations, management, and results.
For over a year, I’ve been pointing out that there is no machine-readable federal government organization chart. Having one is elemental transparency, and there’s some chance that the Obama administration will materialize with the Federal Program Inventory. But we don’t know yet if agency and program identifiers will be published. The Obama administration could catch up or overtake House Republicans with a little effort in this area. Here’s hoping they do.”
This article has been updated with additional statements over time.
Last week, the Library of Congress launched Congress.gov in beta, its vision of the next generation of THOMAS, the online repository of the nation’s legislative data. The site features a “most viewed bills” list that lets visitors to the site see at a glance what laws or proposals are gathering interest the site.
The most viewed bills there, however, may not match up to the most popular bills elsewhere online. POPVOX**, a civic startup that is trying to bring the voice of the People into Congress, has posted the top 50 bills on its site for the 112th Congress, in terms of activity.
That the top bill is the Stop Online Piracy Act — and that the PROTECT IP Act is also in the top 5 — is unlikely to be a surprise to observers. The other bills at the top of the list — HR3035 Mobile Informational Call Act, HR2306 Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act and S3240 Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act – may be more unfamiliar to many people. The complete list is in the infographic below, including whether POPVOX’s userbase supported or opposed them.
Marci Harris, the co-founder and CEO of POPVOX, wrote in via email to note that, as the 112th Congress comes to a close, the sequestration issue is starting to pop.
**DISCLAIMER: Tim O’Reilly, my publisher, provided angel funding for POPVOX last year. He calls it “a kind of Google Analytics service for politics, bringing visibility and actionable insight to both Congressional staffers and advocacy organizations.”
Data from a new study on the use of Twitter by U.S. Senator and Representatives by public relations giant Edelman strongly suggests that the Grand Old Party has opened up a grand old lead in its use of the popular microblogging platform in just about every metric.
On Twitter’s 6th birthday, there’s more political speech flowing through tweets than ever. Twitter data from the study, as provided by Simply Measured, showed that on Twitter, Republican lawmakers are mentioned more, reply more often, are retweeted more, share more links to rich content and webpages, and reference specific bills much more often. Republicans tweet about legislation 3.5 times more than Democrats.
There are also more Republicans on Twitter: while the 89 U.S. Senators who tweet are evenly split, with one more Republican Senator tipping the balance, in the U.S. House there are 67 more Republican Representatives expressing themselves in 140 characters or less.
At this point, it’s worth noting that one of Twitter’s government leads in DC estimated earlier this year that only 15-20% of Congressional Twitter accounts are actually being updated by the Congressmen themselves, but the imbalance stands.
While Edelman DC was quite tactful about what its study on the yeas and nays of the Congressional Twitterverse revealed, the lead Congressional Republicans hold on Twitter has been well documented since 2010, when a study on Twitter in Congress asserted that Democrats use Twitter for transparency, while Republicans use it for outreach. A 2011 survey of social media use in Congress by the Associated Press found that the Republicans similarly “out tweeting” Democrats on Twitter.
While the ways that governments deal with social media cannot be measured by one platform alone nor the activity upon it, the data in the embedded study below be of interest to many, particularly as the window for Congress to pass meaningful legislation narrows as the full election season looms this summer.
In the context of social media and election 2012, how well a Representative or Senator is tweeting could be assessed by whether they can use Twitter to build awareness of political platforms, respond to opposing campaign or, perhaps importantly for the purposes of the election, reach potential voters, help get them registered, and bring them to the polls
Nathan Eung, one of the authors of the study cited above, wrote at Govfresh about how the reasons for using Twitter may be different across party lines
Outreach and transparency are both valuable to a healthy democracy, and to some extent, it is re-assuring that Twitter use is motivated by both reasons. An interesting counter-factual situation would be if the Republicans were the majority party. We may therefore ask in that situation: Is the desire to reach out to (opposing) voters strongest for “losing” parties? Our study certainly hints that Republicans are not only motivated to use Twitter as a means to reach out to their own followers, but also to Democrats, as they are more likely to use Twitter in cases where their district was overwhelmingly in favor President Barack Obama.
All-in-all, it would seem like Twitter is good for the whole Gov 2.0 idea. If Republicans are using Twitter as a means for outreach, then more bills may be passed (note: this has yet to be tested empirically, and still remains an open question for researchers). If Democrats are using Twitter as a means for transparency, then the public benefits from the stronger sense of accountability.
Yesterday, the Office of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VI) launched a new Facebook application, “Citizen Co-sponsor.” Rep. Cantor introduces it in the video below:
Since its introduction, I’ve been mulling over what to write about the new app. Here’s what I’ve read to date:
First, excellent reporting from TechPresident, where Sara Lai Stirland writes that the new Facebook open graph app makes lawmaking social:
The app enables people to use Facebook to track the progress of House legislation as it makes its way through the chamber, but also provides the majority leader’s office with an interesting new grassroots marketing tool for the Republican party’s ideas.
The new app makes use of Facebook’s Open Graph protocol, which means that once installed, updates to legislation that a user has expressed support for can be automatically posted to their Facebook profiles. It also means that these updates show up in users’ timelines, newsfeeds and tickers, giving the legislation more exposure to users’ networks of friends.
For now, the list of legislation that citizens can choose to support is controlled, of course, by Cantor’s office and is listed on a section of his web site. Citizens can click to “co-sponsor” legislation that they support, and see all the other citizen co-sponsors who’ve expressed their support. Each widget for each piece of legislation also shows a visual storyline of that legislation’s progress through the House.
Second, a post by Alex Fitzpatrick at Mashable on the Facebook citizen cosponsor app , in which he interviewed Matt Lira, the director of digital for the House Majority Leader.
“We have a startup mentality to it,” says Lira. “When Twitter first started, it was just going to be for cell phones, now it is what it is today. It’s evolutionary, so you want to see how users use it and if the engagement justifies it, we’ll expand it out.”
The new media team at Cantor’s office is drawing inspiration from both sides of the aisle. Lira says he’s a fan of Rep. Issa’s (R-Calif.) Madison Project as well as the White House’s “We the People” online petitions. He talked about online bill markups, hearings and expert roundtables as possibilites for ways to expand the Citizen Cosponsor in the future.
“We want the program to give more to users than is asks of them,” says Lira. “The only way this stuff works is if you have a tolerance for experimentation and a certain level of patience. I’ve been impressed with We the People and that’s very experimental — it’s in the spirit of ‘let’s throw something out there and see if it works.’ Otherwise, there’s the alternative: a conference room of ideas that never happen.”
In late 2007 when I, as a staffer, shopped an idea around within Congress to create a public platform for constituent engagement, I discovered that it was nearly impossible to build something like that within the institution of Congress outside of the partisan caucus system. You could either build a Democratic-sponsored tool or a Republican-sponsored tool, but there was no structure for building a nonpartisan CONGRESSIONAL tool (and don’t even get me started on how impossible integration between House and Senate was/is.)* My experience does not mean that nonpartisan strides are impossible — just challenging, and that any effort should be viewed with a critical eye.
Dave Copeland published a more critical take on the enterprise this afternoon at ReadWriteWeb, writing that the House Majority leader missed the mark with the Facebook app, asking a key question:
…why not use the publicly available data on all pending legislation and allow citizens to “co-sponsor” any bill currently being weighed by the legislature?
No matter how we feel about Facebook’s privacy provisions, we’ll be the first to admit that it is the default way to connect with people these ways. We’re not poo-poohing any initiative that harnesses social media that makes it easier for people to get involved in the political process, and we’re not bashing this from a partisan point of view. We’re bashing it from a point of view that cares about transparency.
Cantor’s ploy reeks of partisanship disguised as bipartisanship (nowhere on the main page of the site are the words “Democrat” or “Republican” used). And while the Cosponsor Project may be more participatory, it’s certainly not the “open, visible” platform he promises in his introduction.
That all adds up to a strong critique. As the app stands, however, it’s an important first step into the water for integration of Facebook’s social graph into legislation.
That said, there are some flaws, from an unclear Terms of Service to permissive data usage to a quite limited selection of bills that citizens can follow or support.
In addition, as a commenter on Mashable notes, “Unless there’s a way to show how many people are *against* proposed bills, this will not provide a clear picture as to the support they actually have. You might have a significant number of citizen cosponsors (say 25k), but that number loses its significance if the number of people against is, say 125k. You need both measures in order to get an idea as to whether or not a proposed bill is truly supported.”
I’ve asked Lira a number of followup questions and will file something for Radar if he responds. In the meantime, what do you think of the app and the initiative? Please let us know in the comments, keeping the following perspective from Harris in mind:
As with any startup, the first iteration is never perfect. Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, famously said, “if you are not embarrassed by your first release, you’ve launched too late.” In that sense, maybe the Majority Leader is learning from the startup world. In an email response to my questions, Matt Lira, Director of New Media for Majority Leader Cantor, seemed to indicate that there were iterations to come: “As was the case when I publicly defended We the People, this is an evolutionary step – there will be continual progress, as with all these things, towards the desired end of a modernized Congress.”
Update: “We’ve always characterized both MADISON and Citizen CoSponsors as digital experiments that we are both admittedly excited about and that I personally believe have great potential to grow,” responded Matt Lira, director of digital for the House Majority Leader’s office, via email.
“These are the type of projects that will modernize our country’s legislative institutions for the social media age,” he wrote. “We are trying really new things like MADISON and Citizens. We are successfully driving institutional reforms on a structural basis. We are the same people who created docs.House.gov, require a public posting period for legislation, and established a machine-readable document standard. In short, people who have done more to open the House of Representatives than anyone in history.”
With respect to “e-partisanship,” Lira noted that “from the moment it launched, the app included a bill sponsored by a Democratic Representative. Some of the other bills – like the JOBS Act – have widespread support on both sides. I launched with six bills, because I wanted to see how the app works in the field, before making any choices about its wider deployment, should that even be justified.”
This post has updated to include a disclosure about Tim O’Reilly’s early investment in POPVOX.