Nudging Justice Forward — A little appropriation goes a long way

The Department of Justice is one of the most enigmatic federal agencies. Entrusted with enormous power, it can be a tremendous champion for the public good. But with great power — as the axiom says — comes great responsibility, and the Justice Department twists and turns away from public scrutiny that assesses its behavior.

Congress ultimately bears the responsibility to hold the Executive Branch to account, which is why we submitted testimony last Friday encouraging the legislature to do just that. While the Justice Department is virtually untouchable, its Achilles’ heel is its funding, which is where we put in our request: to the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that is considering funding for Commerce, Science, Justice, and related agencies.

We requested three things: Continue reading “Nudging Justice Forward — A little appropriation goes a long way”

House Publishes Its Rules, Jefferson’s Manual, & More Online as Structured Data

Today the Government Publishing Office published the House Manual — which contains Rules of the House of Representatives, Jefferson’s Manual, and other important legislative documents — online in a structured data format on GitHub. GPO did so pursuant to direction from the House Rules Committee, which was acting in accordance with the rules package passed at the beginning of the 114th Congress, which declares:

The House shall continue efforts to broaden the availability of legislative documents in machine readable formats in the One Hundred Fourteenth Congress in furtherance of the institutional priority of improving public availability and use of legislative information produced by the House and its committees.

Continue reading “House Publishes Its Rules, Jefferson’s Manual, & More Online as Structured Data”

Civic Organizations Warn White House on Failing Transparency Legacy

In an unusually strongly worded letter, today Demand Progress and twelve civic organizations warned President Obama that his legacy on transparency issues is in danger. After identifying serious failings on the part of the administration — including its efforts to undermine FOIA legislation, federal spending transparency legislation, and the stalling of its ethics agenda — the organizations issued this warning:

[W]hat troubles us is that it appears your White House team lacks the will and interest to undertake the challenge of this transformative work, and in some instances actively undermined forward progress. Indeed, in some areas that appear well within the administration’s control, there has even been backsliding — for instance, novel uses of the state secrets privilege and the unprecedented number of Espionage Act prosecutions for disclosures to the media.

There is a very real danger that instead of leaving the legacy of transparency that you intended, you risk leaving with a very different legacy: one of betrayed promises. Circumstances may force us to rate your administration as one that failed to fulfill its goals.

In this last year of your presidency, you have the opportunity to revive your legacy for open and transparent government.

The organizations recommended a series of remedial actions that, if taken in concert, may salvage the administration’s reputation. They include:

  • Endorse the FOIA bill that has passed the Senate. (The Administration reportedly recently did so.)
  • Proactively disclose agency visitor logs.
  • Release and declassify the torture report that originated in the Senate.
  • Shed light on our rigged campaign finance system through an Executive Order on federal contractor political spending and other means.
  • Protect whistleblowers (including contractors) in the national security context.
  • Fight to slow down the revolving door.

There is no doubt there still are good people in the administration fighting for open government and transparency. There are many amazing people in the agencies. But they need an ally at the top — one who, even in the waning days of the administration, can set priorities and cut through the bureaucracy.

The president has reminded us in another context that he’s still in office and is still working. Let’s hope he will reengage on open, accountable, and transparency government.

— Written by Daniel Schuman

2016 Legislative Data & Transparency Conference Set for June 21

The Committee on House Administration will host its fifth annual Legislative Data and Transparency Conference on June 21, from 9–4 in the U.S. Capitol.

Free registration is now open. Per the invite:

The #LDTC16 brings individuals from Legislative Branch agencies together with data users and transparency advocates to foster a conversation about the use of legislative data — addressing how agencies use technology well and how they can use it better in the future.

The conferences are an amazing opportunity to engage with internal and external congressional stakeholders on making Congress more transparent and opening up legislative information. Perhaps even more importantly, they have become a place where everyone works together to find a way to make Congress work better and become more effective.

We expect to co-host a happy hour after the conference, location TBD.

What was it like in previous years? Well, here are write-ups from previous conferences:

Cross-posted from the Congressional Data Coalition blog.

— Written by Daniel Schuman

A Guide for Appropriators on Opening Up Congressional Information and Making Congress Work Better

For the fifth year in a row, today members of the Congressional Data Coalitionsubmitted testimony to House Appropriators on ways to open up legislative information. The bipartisan coalition focused on tweaking congressional procedures and releasing datasets that, in the hands of third parties, will strengthen Congress’ capacity to govern.

The testimony took note of notable successes:

We commend the House of Representatives for its ongoing efforts to open up congressional information. We applaud the House of Representatives for publishing online and in a structured data format bill text, status, and summary information — and are pleased the Senate has joined the effort. We commend the ongoing work on the Amendment Impact Program and efforts to modernize how committee hearings are published. We look forward to the release of House Rules and House Statement of Disbursements in structured data formats.

We would also like to recognize the growing Member and Congressional staff public engagement around innovation, civic technology and public data issues. From the 18 Members and dozens of staff participating in last year’s nationwide series of #Hack4Congress civic hacking events to the Second Congressional Hackathon co-sponsored by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, there is a growing level of enthusiastic support inside the institution for building a better Congress with better technology and data. Moreover, the House Ethics Committee’s recent approval of open source software and the launch of the Congressional Open Source Caucus means good things are in store for 2016.

This groundswell of support cuts across all ages, geographic areas and demographics, both inside and outside Congress. We are excited for the House’s 2016 legislative data and transparency conference and appreciate the quarterly public meetings of the Bulk Data Task Force.

And made recommendations on where the House should focus next or what kinds of data should be released:

Extend and Broaden the Bulk Data Task Force
● Release the Digitized Historical Congressional Record and Publish Future Editions in XML
● Publish all Information in Bulk and in a Structured Data Format
● Include All Public Laws in
● Publish Calendar of Committee Activities in
● Complete and Auditable Bill Text
● CRS Annual Reports and Indices of CRS Reports
● House and Committee Rules
● Publish Bioguide in XML with a Change Log
● Constitution Annotated
● House Office and Support Agency Reports

Signatories included: Center for Data Innovation, Data Coalition, Demand Progress, Free Government Information, GovTrack.Us, New America’s Open Technology Institute, OpenGov Foundation, OpenTheGovernment.Org, R Street Institute, and the Sunlight Foundation.

Read the testimony here. A primer on the work of the Congressional Data Coalition and its testimony over the last half decade is here.

— Written by Daniel Schuman

Empowering The House Intelligence Committee to be Smarter

How do you help Members of the House Intelligence Committee makes the best decisions about matters concerning national security? In part, it’s by making sure that they receive the best staff support possible. That’s why a bipartisan coalition of 16 organizations sent a letter Friday in support of a congressional request for high security clearances for staffers. Let me explain….

The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (a.k.a. House Intelligence Committee or HPSCI) has its staff hired by the chair and ranking member of the committee. Because of the nature of intelligence committee work, public and outside experts are less able to render assistance than with other committees.

As a result, members of Congress rely more than usual on their staff to provide confidential advice and assistance — and those staff must have the highest levels of clearance to be useful. It is only with top clearances that it becomes possible to ask the probing questions of intelligence briefers and to have fully informed conversations with Members of Congress. While committee staff can be useful, personal office staff play a unique and distinct role as compared to committee staff in fulfilling this need for individualized assistance.

That is why, in part, that each Senator who serve on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (a.k.a. Senate Intelligence Committee or SSCI) hires a staffer who is responsible to that Senator, can obtain the highest level of clearance, and provides support concerning the work of SSCI.

Providing members of HPSCI with personal office staffers with top security clearances creates parity with the Senate and also expands the pool of staff a Member of Congress with intelligence responsibilities can rely upon.

All this can be accomplished through $125,000 in additional funding to the House Sergeant at Arms to allow personal office designees of members who serve on HPSCI to be able to undergo Top Secret Sensitive Compartmented Information Security (TS/SCI) investigations.

It’s not just us that thinks this would be useful. Eight Members of the House Intelligence Committee, coordinated by Rep. Jackie Speier, requested that appropriators make these funds available to the Sergeant at Arms.

Some may fret that providing 20-odd congressional staffers high clearance may pose security problems, but considering more than 660,000 executive branch employees have top secret clearance and more than 500,000 contractors have top secret clearance, I suspect the real danger comes from a lack of oversight, not an empowered Congress.

— Written by Daniel Schuman

Congress Can Fix Itself … With A Little Help

Part IV: The Way Forward Towards A Stronger Congress

How do we use technology to build congressional capacity to perform its work? In part, the work of the Congressional Data Coalition is powering this virtuous cycle in partnership with Congress. Congress works best with a single entity that represents public stakeholders, and the Congressional Data Coalition is a trusted partner. Greater support of the work of the coalition will speed the process up and provide support to the Senate to follow the path trod by the House as well as encourage the House to go further.

Congress, however, still is not equipped to think systematically about how the information revolution can transform the way it governs. For example, with respect to congressional access to information:

  • Congress requires agencies to provide it thousands of reports, but no effort is made to gather the reports in a central location so that all committees and staff can benefit from the reporting.
  • Information relevant to Congressional activities is not appropriately contextualized. For example, if a staffer is examining a particular bill, legislative information systems should 1) automatically identify others bills that have the same or similar language over multiple congresses; 2) surface testimony and committee reports associated with those bills; 3) and identify GAO reports, CRS reports, and Dear Colleague letters that cover that subject matter; and other relevant information.
  • The work product of the Congressional Research Service focuses on producing reports and answering discrete questions. Encouraging analysts to aggregate topical information — think tank reports, news stories, agency statements, hearing information — and regularly share it with staff, perhaps in the form of a email blast, can prevent member offices from duplicating effort and raise the overall quality of work of staffers covering an issue area.
Continue reading “Congress Can Fix Itself … With A Little Help”

Congress Can Fix Itself … With A Little Help

Part III: Bootstrapping Congress Into the Digital Age

How can Congress muster sufficient resources to properly fund its essential functions in an era of asphyxiating budgets? Unsurprisingly for a 227-year-old institution, congressional operations often are inefficient, expensive, or no longer necessary. There’s not a lot of money there, but there’s enough to invest in greater productivity. Moving to a digital congress, and finding cost savings in doing so, is a way forward in transforming how Congress operates.

For example, the House already has moved to publish the House Calendar online so it does not have to physically print and distribute copies to all offices. The same is true of printing and distributing bills, the U.S. code, and other documents. Money saved by making these operational changes can go towards supporting process reforms. To some extent, Congress is moving down this path.

Continue reading “Congress Can Fix Itself … With A Little Help”

Congress Can Fix Itself … With A Little Help

Part II: How Congress Broke Itself

How can Congress get out of the mess it finds itself in? The approach I suggest is to provide Members and staff greater tools and resources do to their jobs. This will enable them to think long term and remove their undue reliance on special interests dedicated to the status quo. In an era where Congress will not spend more money on itself, resources can be freed up by moving Congress into the information age.

For that to be possible, we must answer difficult questions. What are the incentives and choices affecting legislators as legislators? What internal constraints push members of Congress and their staff act as they do? How do you help members of Congress think of themselves collectively as the first branch of government? How do you create enough space so Congress becomes capable of healing itself?

Continue reading “Congress Can Fix Itself … With A Little Help”

Freedom of Information Bill Passes the Senate

Today the Senate passed a Freedom of Information (FOIA) bill by unanimous consent. The legislation, officially known as the FOIA Improvement Act of 2015, was shepherded through the upper chamber by its original co-sponsors — Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) and Judiciary Committee Chair Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Ranking Member Patrick Leahy (D-VT). Its passage is a tribute to the willingness of members of the Judiciary Committee to work together in a bipartisan way — and partially thanks to the fortuitous fact that the president’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court has not yet been sent to the Senate.

The measure now moves to the House of Representatives, which itself passed similar legislation, known as the FOIA Act, earlier this year. That measure was originally authored by then Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chair Reps. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-MD), and enjoys the strong support of current Oversight Committee Chair Jason Chaffetz (R-UT).

Continue reading “Freedom of Information Bill Passes the Senate”