Exempt from FOIA, US legislative support agencies follow uneven transparency standards

Reading room in the Library of Congress Jefferson Building. Source: https://www.house.gov/the-house-explained/legislative-branch-partners
Reading room in the Library of Congress Jefferson Building. Source: House.gov

Around the world, over one hundred nations have adopted freedom of information (FOI) laws that give their publics a right to request records from their governments. While these statutes are riddled with exemptions, marked by political interference, and often light on sanctions for those that block them, FOI laws remain essential tools for democratic governance everywhere they exist.

FOI laws have the greatest impact on transparency and accountability in states and nations where press freedom is strong and independent FOI ombudsmen and courts provide an adversarial venue where requesters can make appeals and challenge denials.

Sweden’s FOI law is the oldest in the world, passed in 1766. It wasn’t until July 4, 1966 that President Lyndon Johnson reluctantly signed the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) at his ranch in Texas, codifying into law the American public’s right to access information from government agencies in the executive branch. 

During the Trump administration, the number of FOIA requests, FOIA lawsuits, and records censored have all reached record levels, driven from a combination of non-responsive agencies, reduced proactive disclosure, and active litigation by civil society groups.

Continue reading “Exempt from FOIA, US legislative support agencies follow uneven transparency standards”

Recap of the July 2019 Bulk Data Task Force Meeting

Last week the Bulk Data Task Force (BDTF) convened internal and external stakeholders to discuss, you guessed it, congressional data. 

Established in 2012, the BDTF brings together parties from across the legislative branch—including the House Clerk, the Secretary of the Senate, Government Publishing Office (GPO), Library of Congress (LOC), and more—as well as external expert groups to make congressional information easier to access and use.

Scroll down for a list of tools, both currently available and in the works, as well as announcements from the meeting.  Continue reading “Recap of the July 2019 Bulk Data Task Force Meeting”

Do 218 Co-Sponsors Make a Difference? Apparently, Yes.

Recent proposals to reform the rules of the House of Representatives included measures to make it easier for legislation that has the support of a majority of the chamber to advance to the floor or prompt committee consideration. If implemented, would this make a difference in how legislation plays out? Apparently, yes.

To find out, we reviewed all House bills that had 218 or more sponsors between 1999–2016, i.e., the 106th-114th Congresses. In the House, 218 members constitutes a majority, so for simplicity’s sake we’ll refer to this set of bills as “popular House bills.”

During the 106th-114th Congresses, 108,086 bills were introduced, but only 3.5% were enacted, or 3,728 bills. In the same period, 450 popular House bills were introduced, with 22% enacted, or 102 bills.

In other words, a bill with 218 co-sponsors is six and a half times more likely to be enacted than any particular bill. Continue reading “Do 218 Co-Sponsors Make a Difference? Apparently, Yes.”

Plan for Publishing CRS Reports Falls Short

In March, new legislation from Congress required the Library of Congress publish all non-confidential Congressional Research Service reports online by September 19th of this year. That deadline is rapidly approaching and while congressional and civil society concerns about the library’s implementation plan remain unaddressed, the Librarian of Congress, Dr. Hayden, declined a direct request from Rep. Lofgren for the Librarian to meet with civil society about improving the website. Continue reading “Plan for Publishing CRS Reports Falls Short”

The 2017 #OpenGov National Action Plan

 

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Photo credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Starting in 2011 and every two years afterward, the White House has drawn up an open government national action plan that is intended to contain specific, measurable open government commitments. The planning process is an outgrowth of the Obama administration’s open government initiative, which kicked off in 2009 when agencies were first required to create open government plans, but takes place on an international scale.

The Trump administration said it will continue this process and is collecting recommendations for the 2017 plan. (More explanation via the Sunlight Foundation.)

While we were heartened to see the Obama administration adopt one of our recommendations — a machine readable government organization chart — most of the other ideas were not put into action. We reiterate and update them here and call on Congress to require the administration to put them into effect. In summary, they are:

Continue reading “The 2017 #OpenGov National Action Plan”

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. Continue reading “11 Simple Things to Improve Senate Accountability”

3 Cheers for the Door Stop Awards

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Photo courtesy the OpenGov Foundation

The OpenGov Foundation hosted the Door Stop Awards yesterday, which recognized the largely (but not entirely) unsung efforts to open the doors of Congress to the American people.

Last night, at the first ever Door Stop Awards last night, six Members of Congress and congressional staff were honored by the open government community for their tireless efforts to drag Congress into the digital age and make the legislative branch more open, responsive, and accountable.

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Photo courtesy the OpenGov Foundation

The honorees were:

 

  • The Honorable John Boehner
  • The Honorable Eric Cantor
  • The Honorable Steny Hoyer
  • The Honorable Jared Polis
  • Joe-Marie St. Martin
  • Karina Newton

Continue reading “3 Cheers for the Door Stop Awards”

New Report: Opening up the One Agency that Rules Them All

The most powerful federal agency is one no one outside of Washington has heard of. It controls how agencies request money from Congress and spend it, oversees virtually all major rulemakings, controls multi-agency processes, sets federal information policy, and more. In some respects, it’s the tail that wags the White House dog. The agency is the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

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Seal of the Executive Office of the President. Credit: DonkeyHotey.

Over the course of the Obama administration we’ve made recommendations on how OMB should lighten up — I mean open up. We made recommendations to the administration’s National Act Plan, which is intended to contain actionable open government commitments, drafted guidelines on how agencies can improve proactive disclosure, and suggested how to make earmarks more transparent.

More than six years ago the Obama administration started a new process by which agencies release open government plans every two years. OMB oversees the process and is supposed to issue a plan as well. While OMB issued a plan in 2010, it failed to do so in 2012 and 2014.

Today we issue new recommendations to OMB as to what it should include in its open government plan, which are essentially warmed-over recommendations from 2014. But they’re still good ideas. They include:

 

  • Publishing Congressional Budget Justifications online in one central place. (I wrote about this yesterday).
  • Creating a machine-readable organization chart of the federal government. (This idea was adopted as part of the National Action Plan last year).
  • Fixing how the government gathers information through forms by making sure they’re well designed, catch input errors, flow easily into databases, and are built for maximum disclosure and reuse.
  • Creating better disclosure for when outside lobbyists push OIRA to change or kill a proposed regulation.
  • Set forth guidelines on how agencies can think through and proactively disclose information they hold.

Frankly, this is a fairly modest list. OMB should be leading on federal spending transparency by pushing forward DATA Act implementation, providing significant assistance to improve implementation of the Freedom of Information Act, rethinking its entire regulatory approval process, reexamining how it implements cost/benefit analysis, setting forth regulations mandating public access to information, and much more.

But there isn’t much useful time left in the administration. We hope OMB will act on the recommendations and issue a substantive open government plan soon, especially with Sunshine Week soon upon us.

— Written by Daniel Schuman

 

Groundswell in support of Public Access to CRS Reports

Over the last week the issue of public access to non-confidential CRS reports has come into focus. A grassroots effort has sent hundreds of emails from constituents to select Members of Congress over the last two weeks. Transparency organizations and former CRS employees called for public access. A panel of experts met to discuss the issue on Capitol Hill. And there have been a handful of news stories. I thought it might be helpful to round-up all that information.

We expect this issue will continue to be in the news, especially with all the changes contemplated at the Library of Congress. To be clear, we are advocating comprehensive public access to non-confidential CRS reports, addressing the serious issue of inequitable access by lobbyists and special interests when compared to the general public. We are not calling for public access to confidential memoranda or advice.

Last Thursday, the Congressional Transparency Caucus convened a discussion on public access. A panel addressed why non-confidential CRS reports should be publicly available; the legal and constitutional issues; the policy issues; and the CRS perspective. Video is available here. Participants included former Rep. Chris Shays (R-CT), Stan Brand, Kevin Kosar, Prue Adler, and me as moderator. Reps. Leonard Lance (R-NJ) and Mike Quigley (D-IL) both spoke; they have introduced House Resolution 34 in support of public access.

Also on Thursday, 22 former CRS employees with more than a collective 500-year tenure at the agency released this letter calling for public access. On average, each employee was with CRS for more than 25 years.

In late August, a coalition of more than 41 organizations called for public access to the non-confidential reports and rebutted any concerns with their release (see appendix).

In addition to this favorable New York Times editorial, and op-ed by Reps. Lance and Quigley, several news stories have come out recently.

Public access is a bipartisan issue everyone can support. We believe in a strong CRS that serves Congress, and Congress’ interests are helped by ensuring the non-confidential reports — not the memos or advice — are available to the general public.

More Resources

Member Statements

Candice Miller, Chair, Committee on House Administration
Across the Capitol, House Administration Committee Chairwoman Candice Miller (R-Mich.), who has primary jurisdiction over the CRS, said in an interview that she’s been sidetracked this year by other issues but promised she’d give the legislation her attention soon. “I’ll take a look at it. I know there’s been a lot of talk about that over the years. There might be some of those reports that could be [released]. Others maybe not,” she said. — 10/29/2015, quoted in Politico.

Roy Blunt, Chair, Senate Rules Committee
“I’ve never understood why those couldn’t be available to the public and I’m interested in looking at that,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who was handed the gavel on the Senate Rules panel in January, and also serves as chairman of the Joint Committee on the Library. — 7/14/2015, quoted in Roll Call.

Gregg Harper, Vice Chair, Joint Committee on the Library “You could argue that both ways, and so I want to make sure that we give that a proper study, so we haven’t made a 100 percent decision on what works best,” Harper said. “You want to make sure they can speak openly and we can get the information we need. Now, do you want to release that to the public? That’s something that we’re still trying to work through.” — 7/14/2015, quoted in Roll Call.

— Written by Daniel Schuman

Publish the Digitized Congressional Record

GPO and the Library of Congress Should Collaborate with the Public

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Photo credit: Erin KInney

At a meeting in April, the Government Publishing Office announced its collaboration with the Library of Congress to digitize all bound volumes of the Congressional Record from 1873–1998. The Congressional Record is the official record of the proceedings and debates of the United States Congress.

The digitization project is pursuant to a 2010 Joint Committee on Printing letter. GPO explained at the April meeting that it had digitized all of the volumes and the “[Library Services and Content Management business unit] was in the acquisitions process for the next step of reviewing the digital content and creating descriptive metadata.”

GPO and the Library should release the digitized volumes now. Even without metadata, the Congressional Record could be searched and put to other uses. Other digitization projects concerning documents held by the Library have taken years while descriptive metadata was created. By contrast, a volunteer-led effort to create descriptive metadata for the Statutes of Large took a matter of months and cost the government nothing.

The National Archives has undertaken similar kinds of projects to what I am proposing. The Archive’s Innovation Hub provides a space for the public to transcribe documents, tag documents, and scan documents and holdings. More information is available at the Citizen Archivist Dashboard.

It is possible the Library/GPO could view this as violating a rule against the public giving gifts to the agency. However, so long as the information is shared publicly with everyone — which is the point of metadata — it would not be a gift to anyone. Similar logic likely underpins the House’s recent decision on the use of Open Source, the White House’s Open Data policy, and the Archive’s collaborative efforts with the public.

I am sure there are benefits to an internal, government-only process … but why hold up public access? We can do both. A collaborative effort around metadata would provide an opportunity for GPO and the Library to engage with the public and to work to make important public documents publicly available. At a minimum, releasing the documents to the public would allow the everyone to collaborate on this effort outside of any limitations on the Library or GPO, perhaps to the immense public benefit of everyone.

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— Written by Daniel Schuman