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More on the Republicans' Open Data Letter

April 29, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

As David mentioned earlier, the House Republican leadership's letter directing the Clerk of the House to improve how they release legislative data online is a big deal. It means that the House is serious about catching up with the standards and expectations of modern information users, both developers and consumers. It's also a sign that Congress is becoming more comfortable with loosening its grip on information about its activities and beginning to appreciate the value of unleashing it as public data into the wilds of the internet.

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Important blog post just published by our colleague John Wonderlich over on our partners the Sunlight Foundation: House Speaker Boehner & Majority Leader Cantor have sent a letter instructing the House Clerk to work towards "publicly releasing the House's legislative data in machine-readable formats". This is just a very first baby step towards comprehensive #opengovdata in the legislative branch and federal government in general, and is just the start of a more transparent & deliberative democratic process, and will require much public watchdogging & accountability to the #opengov community, but amounts to a solidly encouraging step.

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Balance the Budget, But How?

April 28, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

Should taxes be on the table for balancing the budget, or should we look at spending cuts only? This is they key partisan debate right now in Congress, and it's going to come to a head in the next few weeks when the House and Senate vote on the debt limit and, likely, some kind of structural enforcement mechanism for bringing annual deficits down to zero.

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New Commenting Features

April 26, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

Just a quick note here to point out, in case you hadn't noticed, that we've upgraded our commenting system to accommodate hyperlinks, block quotes and a few more formatting functions. We're using the fairly-straight-forward Textile markup language, so it should be pretty simple to start using. If you notice something that's not working properly, please drop us a quick bug report and we'll get it fixed.

The idea is to a make it easier to have more detailed, fully-referenced discussions of the important (and unimportant) issues Congress is dealing with. Unlike a lot of political websites, our community isn't about one ideology or one particular partisan perspective. We're all here because we believe in the importance of transparency, an informed citizenry, and self governance for making our democracy work. Of course, that means our comment threads are often more divisive than, say, those found on Daily Kos or Red State. Hopefully these new features help to keep things divisive yet factual.

Please let us know how the new system is working out. And thanks to all of you participating in the comments and making OpenCongress into one of the smartest, most diverse political communities out there.

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The upcoming debt ceiling increase is pretty much the ultimate must-pass bill. If Congress doesn't pass it, it's not just that some programs would be put on hold or that some federal workers would be furloughed; the entire economy would collapse much more deeply than in 2008, and we would have no chance of recovery since our international credit worthiness, our principle financial asset, would be permanently ruined. Of course, every member of Congress knows that the debt ceiling increase has to be passed. That's why they're hoping to use it as a means to pass other legislation that they know cannot stand on its own. Fox News reports that Senate Republicans are planning to filibuster the debt ceiling increase unless the Senate passes a constitutional balanced budget amendment:

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With gasoline prices around $4 a gallon in most parts of the country, the natural gas industry and their allies in Congress are ramping up their efforts to become a viable and mainstream transportation fuel alternative. Rep. John Sullivan [R, OK-1] and 76 original bipartisan co-sponsors recently introduced the"New Alternative Transportation to Give Americans Solution Act" that would provide about $5 billion in federal subsidies for trucking companies, vehicle owners and fueling stations to transition from gasoline and diesel to natural gas. In one weeks time, the bill more than doubled in co-sponsors -- it now has 178 -- and it appears set to move through the House quickly. But, given the negative environmental impacts of the hydraulic fracking process that would be used to expand natural gas production, is this really the answer to the most recent spike in gasoline prices?

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Why Congress is Even Voting on the Debt Limit

April 22, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

From 1979 to 2011 the House of Representatives had a rule in place, for most years, that allowed them to automatically endorse an increase in the debt limit without having to actually go through the motions of introducing a bill and voting on it. The rule, known as the "Gepardt Rule," made it possible for the House to order the Clerk to print up an engrossed debt limit resolution and send it to the Senate once they have passed a budget. It's why last year's bill to increase the debt limit (H.J.Res.45) had no sponsor. This session, however, the Republicans eliminated the Gephardt Rule in the rules package they passed day one. For the first time since the government shutdown of 1995, the House has no rule for automatic debt limit increase endorsement during a period in which a debt limit increase is necessary to avoid default.

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Just noticed this one:

H.Res.211 - Expressing support for designation of the first weekend of May as Ten Commandments Weekend to recognize the significant contributions the Ten Commandments have made in shaping the principles, institutions, and national character of the United States.

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The Senate began debating legislation to reauthorize and extend the the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and the Small Business Technical Transfer (STTR), two of the federal government's largest research and development programs, on March 10. More than a month later, the Senate is still not finished with the bill. That's slow even by Senate standards, especially considering that we're in the middle of a jobs crisis and it's about as close to a "jobs bill" as we've seen recently. So what's the problem?

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Last Week's Debt Ceiling Vote

April 19, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

When Congress comes back from recess, raising the debt ceiling to accommodate necessary borrowing will be on the top of the agenda. It's estimated that the current $14.3 trillion limit is going to be surpassed in mid-May, and if Congress does not pass an increase in the limit by then the Treasury will have to begin withholding federal payments or default on its intergovernmental obligations. Republicans in the House are threatening to vote down an increase if their spending demands are not met. However, they (all but four of them) have already gone down on the record in favor of increasing the debt limit -- by $2 trillion next year and by nearly $9 trillion over the next decade.

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Fixing the 'Read the Bill' Rule

April 19, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

During the midterm campaigns, Republicans promised that if they took over the House they would end the practice of rushing legislation by requiring all bills to be publicly available for 72 hours before they can be voted on. However, when it came time for them to actually set the rules of the House, the 72-hour rule was changed to a three-calendar-day rule, which meant that a bill could be rushed to a vote after as little as 24 hours and 1 minute of public availability. This three-calendar-day rule has already been used three times this session to rush controversial bills to votes without an adequate period of public review.

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House Republicans Pass 2012 Budget Resolution

April 18, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

Last Friday before Congress left for their two-week recess, the House passed a Republican budget resolution for FY2012 that proposes to reduce the deficit while lowering taxes by cutting social program funding across the board and fundamentally alter entitlements like Medicare and Medicaid. While the Republicans' budget is not going to directly effect how Congress allocates federal funds over the next couple years, it will be hugely influential as the Democrats in the Senate and the White House work towards a compromise that can pass Congress and keep the government operating beyond the 2011 fiscal year.

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99er Advocates Meet With Republican Leadership

April 14, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

Reps. Barbara Lee [D, CA-9] and Bobby Scott [D, VA-3] -- the long-term unemployed's lead advocates in Congress -- managed to sit down with the Republican House leadership this morning to talk about their bill, H.R.589, to extend unemployment benefits for people who have been out of work for two years or longer. Just getting a meeting with the Republicans who control the legislative flow in the House is a big step forward for Lee and Scott. But, unfortunately, it does not sound like a lot of progress was made during the discussion.

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The House is scheduled to vote on the 2011 continuing resolution today, but a new report out from the Congressional Budget Office may cause some problems for the Republicans. The leadership has been saying that the bill represents $38 billion in spending cuts below 2010 levels, less than what many Republicans would prefer, but still a significant amount given that the Democrats control the Senate and the White House, and want to keep spending at the same level as last year. But, according to the AP, the continuing resolution's cuts are just a small fraction of what the leadership has claimed:

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It has long been clear that congressional Republicans are interested in breaking the health care reform law, not improving it. They've already attempted to repeal it entirely and a recent press release from Speaker Rep. John Boehner [R, OH-8] describes, proudly, how the government funding deal that the Republicans negotiated "undermines" the law. Its a sensible strategy given that the Republicans don't have enough control of the government right now to fully repeal it -- if they can gut the law and make it fail, they'll win politically and, so the thinking goes, gain the influence to enact a full repeal.

But, unfortunately, the strategy requires killing some of the best ideas with potential for broad support since they may make people actually like the law when it takes effect. A prime example is the "Consumer Operated and Oriented Plan" (Co-Op) provision that would provide start-up resources for member-owned, non-profit health insurance cooperatives to provide competition with private insurers and potentially drive down costs. This provision, which has yet to go into effect, would be repealed under the government funding bill that is currently making its way through Congress.

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