Two years after promising to make the Republican-led Congress the most transparent in history, House GOP leadership is adding a notch to its belt.
Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., jointly announced Thursday that the Government Printing Office will now allow the public to access all information data sets related to House legislation.
Bulk access refers to the ability to export or download data that can be sorted or analyzed to reveal trends and patterns in congressional actions.
Transparency advocates on and off Capitol Hill have been pushing for changes to how information is made available through government websites. Granting bulk access, they argue, is equivalent to providing users access to an encyclopedia rather than a single entry.
Currently, a user has to click through dozens, if not hundreds, of individual pages in order to gather and sort information on specific topics for the purposes of analysis and comparison. Making certain information available in just a few clicks and a single download simplifies the effort, proponents say, and encourages engagement with the legislative process.
“Making legislative data easier for third parties, developers, and anyone interested in how Congress is tackling current challenges is a priority for House leaders,” Boehner and Cantor said in their joint statement.
People looking to view the bulk data can find it on the websites for both the House clerk and the GPO.
House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., praised the decision to allow the bulk data access, although he focused it on the GPO and House clerk, not Republican leaders.
“I commend GPO and the House Clerk for their actions, and hope that other legislative branch entities like the Library of Congress and the Senate will follow suit by including additional legislative information that is already publicly available, yet not accessible, on Thomas.gov.,” Hoyer said in a release.
The GOP leaders did not say how making this information free to the public compares with for-profit database services that provide similar data sets of government information for a fee. CQ Roll Call is one of those companies.
For some lawmakers and interest groups, the announcement is both welcome and perhaps surprising. While heartened by House Republicans’ commitment to offering legislative information in bulk to the public, they had been angered by a House Appropriations Committee decision to halt efforts in their tracks.
The committee report accompanying the fiscal 2013 Legislative Branch appropriations bill, which the House passed in June, stipulated that a special task force be convened to examine the best options for offering bulk data online before forging ahead.
There was particular concern about which format would be best suited for allowing users to download data in bulk. The most popular choice has been the XML format, which is how bills were already formatted online and is generally considered the easiest format for making the transition to bulk data access.
But some lawmakers and legislative branch agencies questioned whether it would be the most cost-effective or whether it would protect official government documents from manipulation by outside groups.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.