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Disbursement Records Now Online

The Senate’s online debut, however, won’t be until 2011. House officials originally planned to put its SOD online by Aug. 31, but Beard delayed the rollout so officials could train and prepare Hill staffers, according to Ventura. Until now, he said, only financial staffers had to know the book’s jargon; once the books are online, offices may get more calls from constituents and reporters.

“Now, the constituent relations folks may get calls, the press secretaries may get calls,” Ventura said. “We had classes in the [House] Learning Center just telling people how to even read the book.”

That level of difficulty is a central complaint of transparency proponents, who argue that putting a copy of the books online is not enough. Jock Friedly, whose Web site LegiStorm.com offers staffers’ salary information in a searchable online format, said officials should assign unique numbers to each employee to make identification clearer. Right now, there’s no foolproof way to determine whether a “John Smith” who was an intern four years ago is the same “John Smith” who now works in another Member’s office. Instead, Friedly and his staff make educated guesses.

Still, he said the searchable PDFs will probably help him get salary information online more quickly. Employees, he said, now have to “rip apart” the physical books, scan them and send them off to a data entry contractor.

With the online PDFs, LegiStorm may be able to “semi-automate” the process, he said. That may save enough time to allow the company to start putting other expenses — such as official supplies and travel — on its Web site.

“This is a big step forward for the House, but it obviously is not nearly as helpful as it could be,” he said. “The most helpful way to provide the data would be to provide it in a more structured format like XML.”

Sepp agreed, calling the PDFs “nothing more than a snapshot of a document that you can try to look through with a keyword.” “The disclosure process is now somewhere between the Dark Ages and the Renaissance,” he said. “There’s some progress, but it’s still limited.”

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