House Republicans pledged last year to make it easier to track legislative data, but some transparency advocates now fear lawmakers are about to make it harder.
“A tremendous blow to prospects for improving public access to legislative information” is how the Sunlight Foundation has characterized committee report language accompanying the House version of the fiscal 2013 spending bill, approved by the Appropriations Committee last week.
Though not included in the legislation itself, the report provides official guidance for the bill’s implementation. The language that’s worrisome to the Sunlight Foundation and others would require Congress to hold off on formatting legislative information on its websites so users can access disparate data simultaneously, or in bulk.
With bulk access to different types of legislative data, users can download, all at once, multiple copies of the Congressional Record or all bills that have particular phrases. Bulk access makes it easier to gather and sort information on specific topics than clicking through dozens, if not hundreds, of individual pages.
Though no House websites currently offer bulk downloading, it’s something GOP leaders have said they would like to offer eventually.
“The Speaker pledged to make the 112th Congress the most open and transparent Congress in history and to make legislative data available online and in bulk,” said Michael Steel, spokesman for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). “He continues to look for the best way to do that.”
“Facilitating public access to bulk legislative data ... has been and will continue to be a priority for this committee,” echoed Salley Wood, spokeswoman for the House Administration Committee.
But lawmakers’ hands would be tied until a task force could be convened and report back on its findings, according to the House report language.
“We wanted to create a system where we could have this available but also make sure we protect the authenticity and integrity of all this information,” said Rep. Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.), chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch.
Crenshaw was referring to some Members’ interest in finding the best format for legislative files to be downloaded in bulk. The XML format has traditionally been a popular choice, but there are lingering questions as to whether it would be the most cost-efficient, or if it would adequately protect official government documents from manipulation by outside groups.