House Republicans Bring New Openness to CommitteesJanuary 3, 2011 - by Donny Shaw
Congressional committees are where the most important legislating happens. It’s where the big decisions about the scope of bills are made and it’s the only step in the legislative process where senators and representatives engage in genuine back-and-forth discussion of issues. The mark-up process is also where activists and members of Congress have the best shot at influencing legislation. Despite all this, the committee process has long lagged far behind the rest of congressional activity in matters of openness and transparency.
Fortunately, the Republican House rules package that will be voted on on Wednesday will make some changes to how committees operate that, if implemented properly, could help open up this critical step of the legislative process.
One of the biggest barriers to transparency in the committee process has been that the legislative documents that are to be debated and voted on are not made available to the public or to members of the committee before the meeting. Committees only mark-up non-controversial or routine measures bills in their introduced form. For the more substantial stuff, committee chairman usually bring “chairman’s marks” or “amendments in the nature of a substitute” to the meeting as the text that the committee will work on. These can be stacks of papers with hand-written notes scrawled in the ledgers, sections of text crossed out and arrows indicating that chunks of text are being shuffled around. Sometimes they are given to committee members of review before the meeting, but they are hardly ever publicly available beforehand and it’s not uncommon for them to be dropped on committee members when they arrive for the mark-up meeting.
The Republican rules package would require committee chairs to make the text of legislation that is to be marked up “publicly available in electronic form” at least 24 hours before the commencement of the meeting. I know 24 hours doesn’t sound like a lot of time, but it’s a world of difference from zero hours. Progress.
This 24-hour requirement is connected to what could be the most substantial reform of the rules package — how “publicly available in electronic form” is defined. In the past when Congress has offered a public review period for committee texts voluntarily it has meant that locked-down PDF files were posted on committee websites without any standards for how to track them down. For everyone besides lobbyists and congressional reporters, this is not accessible. If the Republicans want their new rule to encourage citizens (and MoCs) to get engaged in the substance of bills, “publicly available in electronic form” should be interpreted to comply with the Principles of Open Government Data.
For example, the committee texts should be made accessible to the widest range of users and uses possible. This means centralizing where they are published, opening them to search engines, and ensuring that they work with technologies like screen readers and language translators. It should also be machine processable so that it can be automatically parsed by databases. Congressional legislative information is public and should be available in open-source, user-friendly formats that make peer-to-peer sharing easy. Until the federal government gets there, they should make it possible for NGOs like OpenCongress, GovTrack, MapLight, WashingtonWatch etc. to pick up the slack.
Establishing the standards for making documents publicly available in electronic form is going to be left up to the Committee on House Administration, which will be chaired by Rep. Dan Lungren [R, CA-3]. The standards they establish are going to set precedent that could eventually impact all areas of congressional information and government data more generally. For the sake or building engagement, fighting corruption, and restorig public trust in the institution of Congress, Lungren ant the Administration Committee should consult the Open Government Data Principles.
Currently, 90% or so of all votes in committees are not made available to the public. This means that for the most important stage of the legislative process, there is no way to hold members of Congress accountable for their actions. The new Republican rules package seeks to change this by requiring “the chair of a committee make the results of any record vote publicly available in electronic form with 48 hours of the vote.”
It’s not clear from the language whether this means just vote results (e.g. “amendment passed by a vote of 18-12”) or full roll call details showing how each member of the committee voted. It is essential that this is interpreted to mean full, granular roll call details. Anything less would mean that data would still be being withheld. Without full details of how each member voted, no progress would really being made here.
Additionally, this data should be posted in a structured, machine-readable format, like XML, so it can be process and reused by as many people and projects as possible.
Audio and Video
Currently, there’s no reliable way to get video or audio of committee meetings, either live via webcast or archived. The new rules package may change this by requiring, “to the maximum extent practicable,” that each committee provide live feeds “in a manner that allows the public to listen to and view the proceeding” and to archive the recordings and make them “easily accessible to the public.”
The problem with implementing this — and this is where the “to the maximum extent practicable” caveat may come into play — is that not all committee rooms are wired for webcasting. According to the Radio-Television Correspondents’ Gallery only 23 of the 38 committee rooms are set up for live video or audio. We already know that the Republicans are planning to install cameras for webcasting in the Rules Committee room, but there have been no announcements yet that they are planning installations in the other 14 committee rooms that lack cameras. In fact, the Republicans are planning to slash the House operating budget by $25 per year, so there might not be funds available for more installations.
For the committee meetings that are recorded and archived, they should be available for viewing and download in open, non-proprietary formats. This means no Flash. A good test here is that if it requires a plug-in, it’s not truly open. A good option is the open-source Ogg Theora format, which can be used and adapted for reuse in any environment without licensing restrictions. And this should go without saying (but unfortunately it needs to be said): all committee videos — and all government video for that matter — should be free of restrictions on reuse.
Pictured above is a Nov. 9th meeting of the incoming GOP Majority transition team.