House Appropriators Turn Back Public Access to CRS Reports, but Not Without a Fight

Today the House of Representatives’ Appropriations Committee debated two amendments that would make Congressional Research Service reports more equitably available to the public. The effort to release the reports was led by Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL) and Rep. Scott Rigell (R-VA).

Here is the bill considered by the committee and the committee report. We submitted testimony to the committee with a number of recommendations for action and we strongly support public access to CRS reports. Continue reading “House Appropriators Turn Back Public Access to CRS Reports, but Not Without a Fight”

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 Congress.gov Information in Bulk and in a Structured Data Format
● Include All Public Laws in Congress.gov
● Publish Calendar of Committee Activities in Congress.gov
● 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

It’s Federal Budget Day. (Groan)

How to make sense of the President’s spending proposal.

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Photo Credit: Ryan McFarland

Today is the day the White House sends the President’s budget to Congress. The proposal — dead on arrival — is an unintelligible mishmash of happy talk, legislative language, and columns of data.

Buried in the pablum is something useful: explanations of what the government does. Imagine, if you can, a plain language description of what each agency does or plans to do, replete with just enough detail to give a good idea of what’s happening. That, in short, sums up agency-produced documents known as “Congressional Budget Justifications” (or CJs, pehaps named after former White House communications director C. J. Cregg.)

In its CJ, an agency provides Congress a rationale for why the legislative branch should make money available for an agency to spend. It says what they’ve done and what they’re planning to do.

The White House’s consigliere, an agency known as the Office of Management and Budget (or OMB, pronounced Oh Em Bee), makes sure the budget proposal and its explanation reflect White House priorities.

OMB sets the rules for how agencies write the budget in a really tedious document known as OMB Circular A-11. Among many other things, it directs agencies to release the full congressional justification materials available to the public and to post them on the internet within two weeks of sending the stuff to Congress. (I’m paraphrasing section 22.6(c)).

There are a couple of problems with this approach to making budget information available to the public.

  1. Unless you stay as home as much as I do, there’s probably no way to know the CJs exist.
  2. The CJs are scattered across the internet. You have to know exactly what you’re looking for. And even when you do, mighty Google still can lead you on a wild goose chase.
  3. Agencies publish the CJs inconsistently. Some departments publish all agencies justifications together as one giant PDF file — which can be so large it crashes your browser. And it’s not possible to do a track changes on PDFs to show how a CJ has changed from year to hear.
  4. Over time, the CJs can be lost as agencies update their pages.
  5. The White House has a central page for information about the federal budget — this one — filled with everything you’d want to know about the proposal except the Congressional Budget Justifications.

An association of people even nerdier than myself, the American Association for Budget and Program Analysts, usually compiles links to all the CJs. This should be a job for OMB, especially since it already is publishing everything else. Not everyone will find the AABPA website, it may not be complete or timely, and you have to know what you’re doing.

One purpose of open government is to make government accessible and understandable to everyone. OMB should publish explanatory information on the federal budget where the public, journalists, advocates, and policy experts would expect to find it. (The open government community has been asking them to do this for several years.)

Congress could get into the act, too.

The Budget or Appropriations Committee could gather up the documents — they are Congressional Budget Justifications, after all — and publish them on their websites, or encourage a legislative support agency like the Congressional Budget Office to do so. It would be a little weird, as why would Congress publish the White House’s public relations documents, but it would address the disclosure problem.

The Appropriators could also direct (i.e. require) OMB to update its regulation to publish the CJs on OMB’s website. It shouldn’t take an act of Congress to get OMB on the job, but what’s a little nudge between coequal branches of government?

— Written by Daniel Schuman

House Passes the Best Leg Branch Approps Bill in 8 Years

On Friday, the House of Representatives passed the best legislative branch appropriations bill since Republicans took power in 2010. Unlike many prior appropriations bills, which often undermined the House’s capacity to govern through deep budget cuts, this legislation contained provisions to strengthen the House and set the stage for further improvements. In addition, it was created in a bipartisan manner, drawing on the hard work of Reps. Kevin Yoder and Tim Ryan and their staff. Continue reading “House Passes the Best Leg Branch Approps Bill in 8 Years”