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Hey Senate Finance Committee, Are You Serious About Transparency?

January 29, 2008 - by Donny Shaw

The Senate Finance Committee is preparing to take a step in the right direction towards making the mysterious process that bills go through in their committee more transparent. They have proposed a set of new rules for making their committee’s actions more accessible to the public, and they will discuss and possibly implement them on Wednesday, when they meet to mark up the economic stimulus bill. But, while the proposals are a welcome attempt to address key issues of transparency in government, they need to be strengthened in order to actually make meaningful contributions to the public’s knowledge of what goes on in their committee.

The good folks at OMB Watch have put together a series of easy-to-implement recommendations for the committee to adopt if they are serious about being more transparent. Here’s their summation of how they are recommending the committee to change their proposed new rules:

>The rules only require the posting of one of the following meeting records, a transcript, an audio recording or a video recording, even though often more than one of these is produced. OMB Watch recommends that all records of committee meetings be posted online.
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>The proposed rule would establish a 21 business day deadline for posting meeting records, which translates into more than a calendar month. This is far too long for the public to wait and OMB Watch is recommending a 5 business day deadline be established for most records, with one exception for corrected transcripts.
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>The draft rules would also allow the committee to delete meeting records after the conclusion of a Congress. Coupled with the poor timeframe provision, this could result in records of committee meetings occurring in the last month of a Congress never seeing the light of day. OMB Watch is recommending permanent archiving of committee records.

These recommendations are totally in line with the Open Government Data Principles some of us here at OpenCongress helped to hash out in December. For example, OMB Watch’s recommendation that “all records of committee meetings be posted online,” correspondents with principle number one: that open data is complete; all public data is made available. And their recommendation that “a 5 business day deadline be established for most records” to be posted corresponds with the third principle: that open data is timely; it is made available as quickly as necessary to preserve the value of the data.

Also at that meeting, and agreeing upon the principles, were Lawrence Lessig, Tim’Oreilly, Carl Malamud, Ethan Zuckerman, Josh Tauberer, Greg Elin and Micah Sifry of the Sunlight Foundation, Aaron Swartz, Tom Steinberg, Dan Newman and 20 or so other open government advocates. While they are revamping their rules, the Senate Finance Committee has an opportunity to show that they are serious about transparency — and not just meeting the minimum requirements — by adopting the OMB Watch recommendations and moving in-line with the remaining Open Government data principles as well.

You can call the Senate Finance Committee tomorrow at (202) 224-4515 to let them know your position on these recommendations and principles.

Pictured above are Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) and Ranking Republican Charles Grassley (R-IA).

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