Free THOMAS!April 12, 2012 - by Donny Shaw
The Republican House leadership of the 112th Congress has shown more of a commitment to opening up the inner workings of Congress than the leaderships of the recent past. They’ve liberaized the rules on what technologies members can use, improved live video offerings of floor activity, and created a new website for accessing the texts of some bills. But on the essential issue of making the raw data of Congress available to the public in a reliable, timely and systematic fashion, they have come up far short.
The aspirations of citizens and web developers for improving American democracy through technology have far surpassed the disclosure practices of those in power. Tremendous private and non-profit sector resources have been invested in leveraging the internet for improving how Congress and the public interact, but every project has been unnecessarily hamstrung by the out-of-date data practices that Congress has been resistant to update. The internet has given rise to a grassroots, non-partisan, pro-democracy movement of tech innovators who are committed to nothing more than making American politics work better, but that movement has been stunted by gatekeepers in Congress who are invested in maintaining the system’s flaws.
Fundamentally, the U.S. Congress has a systemic bias towards secrecy that tends to get reinforced as time goes on. Government secrecy, political partisanship, and public disillusionment feed off each other in a cycle that protects the status quo and resistants reform. It goes something like this:
- Petty Partisanship — The party in the majority that controls the agenda in Congress knows that they stand to benefit by the limited accountability afforded them by the status-quo in congressional data distribution.
- Secrecy — The lack of timely and complete public disclosure of congressional data means that the public only ever gets a partial view of what Congress is really doing.
- Corruption — Where there are limitations on oversight, bad actors in Congress exploit the system to pass legislation that unfairly benefits their special-interest allies.
- Anger and Disillusionment — Journalists manage to reveal some of the corruption in Congress, and resentment of the system grows. Congressional approval is at an all-time low.
- Limited Public Engagement — Without the resources to effect the process, people stop paying attention to Congress, stop communicating with their Sens. and Reps., and stop voting. Divisive national party politics dominate.
- Broken Democracy — Congress becomes more and more beholden to special interests and campaign funders. We now have a system that benefits the few at the expense of the many.
The great irony in all of this is that the website Congress has put together to release information to the public, THOMAS, is named after the greatest proponent of participatory politics this country has ever had — Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson believed that it was government’s job to protect individual citizens from falling under the power of a select group of economically powerful institutions. Yet the system that now bares his name has become a ploy for maintaining an illusion of transparency while ensuring that access to information (read: power) is limited to those with the resources to secure special access.
Opening up bulk access to public data on Congress is a simple and common-sense action Congress could take right now that would be an historic achievemnt for advancing democracy and cleaning up our political system. The recommendations put forward by our colleagues at the Sunlight Foundation are easily achievable within a relatively short time frame and with little finnancial investment. If the House leadership is serious about opening up Washington, this must be their litmus test. Let this be the crowning bipartisan achievement of this otherwise gridlocked session of Congress. It just takes a few members of Congress to step up, be bold, and take on leadership for this cause.
We’re partnering with our friends at the Sunlight Foundation, Washington Watch, Govtrack, Popvox, and dozens of other organizations in calling on the House and Senate Legislative Appropriations Subcommittees to add a bulk data mandate to their appropriations bill for next year’s funding. Only 13 members serve on the subcommittees, but since this is an issue of national importance, we’re asking everyone to write to their senators and representatives to ask them to lobby their colleagues on the Legislative Appropriations Subcommittee for bulk data access.
If your rep. or one of your senators is on the Leislative Approps. Subcommittee, please visit our whip count page and record that you have contacted them. The 13 members on the subcommittee are: Sen. Sherrod Brown [D, OH], Sen. Lindsey Graham [R, SC], Sen. John Hoeven [R, ND], Sen. Ben Nelson [D, NE], Sen. Jon Tester [D, MT], Rep. Sanford Bishop [D, GA-2], Rep. Ken Calvert [R, CA-44], Rep. Ander Crenshaw [R, FL-4], Rep. Jo Ann Emerson [R, MO-8], Rep. Michael Honda [D, CA-15], Rep. Steven LaTourette [R, OH-14], Rep. David Price [D, NC-4], and Rep. Dennis Rehberg [R, MT-0]. Contacting these members is particularly important, but, again, this is a national issue so we’re asking everyone to contact their senators and rep. about this.
One more thing. After your write your members of Congress, can you share this on Facebook and Twitter to help raise awareness of this under-the-radar issue and get more people active on it? Here’s a message you can copy/paste:
Congress refuses to publish its legislative databases online in bulk. Tell them to #freeTHOMAS: bit.ly/Avfasj