Open Congress

Posted May 8, 2007 at 5:22pm

E-mail, THOMAS, electronic filing of campaign and lobbying reports and Web sites maintained by Members and Congressional committees all have transformed the way the public learns about and interacts with Congress, but a series of new recommendations were issued this week to improve the process.

The Sunlight Foundation, a watchdog group, assembled a four-member task force including a liberal blogger and the media director of the conservative Heritage Foundation and came up with 10 recommendations to create a more “open House.” Its report merits serious attention, and some items ought to be adopted promptly.

One of these is electronic availability of all reports filed with the Clerk of the House, including financial disclosures, use of the frank for mass mailings, gift and travel filings, foreign travel reports and expenditures, and legal expense fund disclosures.

Congress requires electronic filing by lobbyists, campaign committees and 527s — and House (not Senate) campaigns — but Members’ personal financial disclosure forms are filed on paper and are available to the public only when scanned and posted online by watchdog groups such as the Center for Responsive Politics.

As the report notes, the Library of Congress’ launch of the THOMAS Web site was a milestone for transparency in 1995, but “the Web has changed dramatically since then, growing from a web of static pages to a web of pages and data from which information can be downloaded and integrated into a variety of customized information and resources.” The report recommends upgrading THOMAS to provide structured legislative data and also to ensure that texts and bills are maintained in a stable format that does not expire.

THOMAS now provides the Congressional Record of floor proceedings online on an overnight basis. It should be faster — as near to a simultaneous transcription as possible — but provision of committee transcripts currently is glacial by comparison. Only about half of open committee hearings and meetings in the 109th Congress were posted online in the form of a transcript or electronic recording, the report said.

The Senate adopted a requirement in January that by this October, every subcommittee and full committee will post a video or audio recording or a transcript of all its open sessions within 14 days. Some committees in both chambers provide live webcasts of their proceedings, but the practice is not universal. It ought to be.

Sunlight’s recommendations tread on the commercial interests of some entities covering Congress, including C-SPAN, which sells videotapes of floor proceedings, and Roll Call’s subsidiary, GalleryWatch, which provides Congressional Research Service reports to its subscribers. Acknowledging a conflict of interest, we’ll refrain from taking a side on recommendations to make these available for free.

The foundation also recommended that Congressional leaders establish a capacity to keep ahead of Internet issues. Congress is still at the Web 1.0 stage of development, while 2.0 currently is available. It should be planning for 3.0. And, of course, whatever recommendations apply to the House also should apply to the Senate — starting with campaign financial disclosures. We need an open Congress.