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

 

City Lights 2012 - Flat map
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”