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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.
“What would be the impact of bulk downloads of legislative data in XML on the timeliness and authoritativeness of congressional information?” the report asks. “What would be the estimated timeline for the development of a system of authentication for bulk data downloads of legislation information in XML? What are the projected budgetary impacts ... [and] potential requirements for Congress to confirm or invalidate third party analyses? Are there other data models ... that can enhance congressional openness or transparency?”
Daniel Schuman, the Sunlight Foundation’s policy counsel and director of the Advisory Committee on Transparency, said the report language is “overly broad.” Because it does not specify which websites would have to wait for the task force’s findings to offer bulk downloads, it could have the adverse effect of blocking the service by legislative branch websites that have already begun to format their data for bulk access.
Schuman also said the task force was given no time frame for reaching its conclusions, creating a situation where transparency initiatives involving bulk data downloads could be delayed indefinitely.
Crenshaw emphasized that the committee report language holds considerable weight and that he was not concerned that this would cause significant delays.
Some lawmakers already have gone on the record to say they want to move the process along.
“I look forward to working with the chairman and leadership of the House ... to advance these efforts to increase public access to legislative data. I believe the time to implement this is now,” Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), ranking member of the Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch, said in his opening remarks at last week’s markup.
Others, such as Congressional Transparency Caucus Co-Chairman Mike Quigley, had stronger words.
“I oppose the committee report language and support making all XML legislative information available online in bulk as soon as possible,” the Illinois Democrat said in a statement to Roll Call. “This would improve transparency and accountability by providing citizens and watchdog groups the ability to analyze data in ways not currently possible.”