11 Simple Things to Improve Senate Accountability

Democratic members of the U.S. Senate recently announced “We the People,” a legislative package the New York Times describes as intended to “hit campaign contributions, lobbying laws and other accountability issues.” Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton hailed the legislation, which is unlikely to pass under Republican control, as “ a strong package of reforms to help restore our democracy and break the grip of wealthy special interests in Washington.”

We applaud any effort to address undue influence and the role of money in politics. (We also think the package of ambitious proposals should have included public financing.) While the provisions in the legislation may prove hard to move even in a Democratic-controlled Senate, we offer eleven ideas to which nearly every senator should be able to say yes.

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(1) Congress should make it easier to track agents of foreign governments who are trying to influence our politics — by requiring foreign lobbyists who register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act to do so electronically instead of filing by filing paper, allowing easy processing and review of their activities.

For more, see #OpenGov National Action Plan Recommendations.

(2) The Senate should make it possible to closely track each lobbyist — by publishing the unique ID number for lobbyists on their lobbying disclosure forms, the LD-2s, to facilitate tracking by individual.

For more, see recommendations of the American Bar Association Lobbying Task Force.

(3) The Congress can open up how it makes spending decisions — by webcasting video from appropriations hearings, as the House does, and not just audio.

For more, see Committees Make the Leap to Video But Approps Doesn’t Get the Picture.

(4) The Congress should make it easier to hold agencies accountable — by making sure all reports of the agencies that are required by law are available through GPO; and also that all Inspector General reports are in one central place.

For more, see the Access to Congressionally Mandated Reports Act, S. 1411 (112th).

(5) The Senate should open its financial books to the public — by publishing its semi-annual statement of expenditures in an open data format, like a digital spreadsheet, as the House already does. Currently, the Senate publishes its spending as a PDF and the data is available through 3rd parties.

For more, see House of Representatives’ Spending Info Now Online as Data.

(6) The Senate can make it easy to see who donates to Senators — by passing the Senate Campaign Disclosure Parity Act. The measure requires Senate candidates to file their campaign disclosure reports with the FEC, not the Secretary of the Senate, which would make the information online more quickly and reduce administrative costs by $500,000 annually.

For more, see S. 336, 114th Congress (44 co-sponsors)

(7) Congress should shed light on secret money — by requiring the IRS, which receives the tax returns of non-profits known as 990s, to receive all the tax returns as data, building on an Obama initiative and a recent IRS decision to release information submitted in digital format.

For more, see Charity Data Are Too Valuable Not To Have In Digital Form.

(8) The Senate should make it easier to see how federal money is spent — by publishing all of the administration’s congressional budget justifications in one place. These justifications explain agency spending in plain language that anyone can understand.

For more, see It’s Federal Budget Day (Groan).

(9) The Senate should make itself more open to the public — by creating a Senate transparency officer whose job is to help people outside the institution understand where info is and work with committees and personal offices to be more open and transparent.

For more, see How the Senate Should Update Its Rules.

(10) The Senate can make itself more savvy about technology — by restoring funding to the Office of Technology assessment, a legislative branch agency that provided non-partisan technology advice to congress.

For more, see Groups Call for Congress to Restore Funding for Technology Experts.

(11) The Senate should fix its operations — by convening a special committee on improving the operations of the Senate, looking at issues of capacity to conduct executive branch resources, staff pay and retention, and more, as it has done historically in 1993 and 1978 and 1947.

For more, see Letter Urging Congress to Improve its Oversight Capacity and Congress Can Fix Itself With a Little Help.

More Recommendations

In addition, should Senators be interested in broader reforms around transparency and operations, we offer the following recommendations. Our white papers on How the Senate Should Update Its Rules and Testimony on Using the Appropriations Process to Promote Openness are good places to dig in further.

How the Senate Should Update Its Rules (White Paper)


  • Improve Disclosure Around Committee Activities
  • Improve Transparency Concerning Senate Operations
  • Improve Public Understanding of Policy Matters
  • Adopt a “Public Access” Presumption
  • Catalog Information Held by the Senate
  • Improve Chamber-Wide Coordination on Open Government
    → Transparency Ombudsman
    → Advisory Committee on Public Access to Information
    → Strengthen Oversight of Legislative Support Agencies

How the Senate Should Use Legislative Appropriations to Improve Openness and Accountability (Testimony)

  • Extend and broaden the Bulk Data Task Force
  • Publish the Congressional Record in XML and eliminate electronic publication gaps
  • Publish a complete and auditable archive of bill text, in a structured electronic format
  • Instantiate a Senate-wide committee record publishing system
  • Publish a contemporaneous list of widely-distributed CRS reports that contains the report name, publication/revision/withdrawal date, and report ID number
  • Release widely-distributed CRS reports to the public
  • Publish Bioguide in XML with a change log
  • Publish the Constitution Annotated in a machine-readable format
  • Publish Senate office and support agency reports online

— Written by Daniel Schuman