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Announcing OpenGovernment Minnesota

June 17, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

We're proud today to announce the launch of our next state on OpenGovernment: Minnesota. Now folks in Minnesota can track with ease everything their state legislature does -- all the bills that are proposed, votesthat are taken, money that is raised, and more. We’ve timed the launch of this, the sixth U.S. state on OpenGovernment, to coincide with the Netroots Nation conference ongoing this weekend in Minneapolis / St. Paul. We’re pleased to share this new public resource for accountability in government and citizen watchdogging with all the political bloggers & issue-based activists there.

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The conclusions will probably come as a surprise exactly none of you, but a new study from the International Monetary Fund on the influence of campaign donations and lobbying politics is worth a mention because of the completeness of the research and the authority of its source. Two IMF economists, Deniz Igan and Prachi Mishra, have been examining how the targeted political activities of financial corporations between 1999 and 2006 affected how Congress voted on bills that strengthened or loosened regulation of Wall Street leading up to the 2008 crisis. They found -- surprise! -- that the more the corporations spent on campaign donations and lobbying, the more likely Congress was to vote in favor of deregulation. Furthermore, they found that the money Wall Street spent on lobbying members of Congress who were connected to Wall Street, either from having worked there in the past or through a former staff member who had gone through the revolving door to K Street, had a much stronger effect on their voting than on those who had no Wall Street connections

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We at the Participatory Politics Foundation are happy to have joined 29 other organizations in signing a letter asking Congress to restore funding for the Electronic Government Fund so that the government transparency projects that have been terminated due to budget cuts can be brought back online and expanded. As the letter notes, the open government projects managed under the E-Gov fund have a proven track record of improving government efficiency, increasing accountability, and fueling private job creation in the knowledge-based economy. With the relatively small amount of money needed to bring these projects back online (less than 0.001% of the budget), and with job creation and deficit reduction as top concerns, restoring the E-Gov fund should be a no-brainer. 

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Dealing WIth Libya

June 3, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

House Republicans have finally decided on how to deal with the growing discontent over that pesky, probably unconstitutional war in Libya. They're going to put the Dennis Kucinich [D, OH-10] withdrawalresolution that they pulled from the floor earlier in the week because it might have passed back on the calendar for a vote Friday. But they're also going to hold a vote on a new, non-binding resolution, from Speaker John Boehner [R, OH-8], that criticizes that Obama for not go through the proper channels in authorizing the war and requiring him to provide Congress with detailed info about the rationale behind getting involved. The strategy: give anti-war and constitutionalist Reps. something meaningful to vote for, but also give middle-of-the-road Reps. a way to allow Obama to continue his war but still be able to tell their constituents that they voted against it.

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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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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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The Week Ahead in Congress

April 11, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

With a deal in place on funding the government for the rest of the fiscal year, the House and Senate now have to go through the motions of actually putting the appropriations legislation into effect. As of Monday morning, the House Appropriations Committee is still drafting the legislative language of the deal, and they're not expected to unveil an actual bill until late Monday night. As you'll see below, the bill is scheduled for a vote on Wednesday, which suggests that once again the House leadership is going to exploit the weak language of their "read the bill" rule and make the bill available for public review for far less than 72 hours, the minimum standard of public availability before votes they themselves promoted on the campaign trail. Of course, we'll be doing everything we can to get the bill text online for commenting and sharing as soon as it's released. With all of the controversial policy riders that have been involved in the closed-door negotiations with the bill, folks with interests in just about any major political issue are going to have something to look for in the text.

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Last year, the independent, non-partisan Office of Congressional Ethics asked the House Ethics Committee to look into some fishy fundraising activity by three congressmen -- Rep. Joseph Crowley [D, NY-7], Rep. John Campbell [R, CA-48] and Rep. Tom Price [R, GA-6]. The allegation was that they held an unusually high number of campaign fundraising events with Wall Street types in the days leading up to the vote on the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act and that this may amount to soliciting funds "in a manner which gave the appearance that special treatment or access was being provided to donors or the appearance that the contributions were linked to an official act."

Well, the Ethics Committee has issued their findings, and though they found that staff members were involved in fundraising and fundraising consultants were involved in setting up lobbyist meetings, they didn't see anything wrong with any of it.

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The House Republican majority gets started in earnest today on their push to repeal the Affordable Care Act. On the schedule for today in the House is the rule that will set the procedural framework for next week's votes on H.R.2, the "Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Act" and its counterpart H.Res.9, "instructing certain committees to report legislation replacing the job-killing health care law." This is the first rule on significant legislation that the new Republican majority is bringing to a vote, but, contrary to their pledge to be more open about committee action and amendments, they are using a closed rule that is more restrictive than most and skipping committee action entirely.

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Senate Dems Unveil Their Filibuster Reforms

January 5, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

Senators Tom Udall [D, NM], Tom Harkin [D, IA] and Jeff Merkley [D, OR] have released an official outline of their filibuster reform package. As expected, it would force senators who want to filibuster to actually stand up and delay things instead of being able to filibuster by just threatening to delay. It would also eliminate filibusters on simply beginning debate of a bill, ensure that both parties can submit amendments and make it impossible for senators to put holds on bills without revealing their identity.

Check out the outline below, and let us know what you think of this reform package in the comments.

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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.

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Getting Ready for the New Congress

January 2, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

We're now just two days away from the beginning of the 112th Congress and the new Republican House majority. While the Republicans have already announced some details about their first few actions, full legislative information for the new session is not yet available. On Wednesday morning we'll be clearing our database of bills information from the 111th Congress to make way for the new data, but, like in 2009, some of the first legislative actions are going to happen without any opportunity for the public or most members of Congress to review the actual documents or submit feedback.

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From Earmarking to Lettermarking

December 28, 2010 - by Donny Shaw

Disclosure in the earmarking process has never been state-of-the-art. Earmark requests and funds secured for projects are released to the public in clunky, non-machine processable PDF files that are often more than hundred pages long and are not sortable in any way, for example by sponsor, recipient, or amount. The disclosures are a far cry from being truly open government data.

But at least it's something. As Ron Nixon at the New York Times reports today, when there's not a formal earmarking process (e.g. the earmark-free government funding arrangement we're operating under right now), Congress' work to direct federal funds to their pet projects doesn't actually stop, it just becomes much more secretive.

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New Rules For a New Senate

December 27, 2010 - by Donny Shaw

After raw support, the most precious commodity in the Senate is time. All of you who have been following Congress with us are probably well aware of this. The rules of the Senate allow a single senator to express their opposition to a bill and, even if it is supported by the other 99%, force the chamber to spend up to 90 hours debating it before they can take a vote. This is why common-sense proposals, like requiring senators to file their campaign finance disclosure electronically rather than by snail mail (i.e. S. 482). Everyone wants this kind of stuff to pass, but because it's easy to threaten to shut down all other activity in the Senate for 90 hours, they often get blocked by a senators who want to use them as vehicles for attaching their own, often more controversial, pet issues.

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The 2011 Defense Authorization Act, one of the bills still likely to be voted on in the lame duck session, is 981 pages long and spends $725 billion. Buried deep in the bill, and with the innocuous title, "Reduction of supply chain risk in the acquisition of national security systems," is a provision that would empower the Defense Department to secretly blacklist companies from federal contracts that they deem to pose "an unacceptable supply chain risk." Neither Congress nor the public would be allowed to know who is blacklisted and why.

There's no doubt that reducing risk in the Defense supply chain is a necessary and worthy goal, but this particular arrangement seems absurdly ripe for abuse as it would establish a clear path for anticompetitive influence-peddling and bribery while at the same time restricting the public from the tools they need to hold government officials accountable.

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