"The expectations are so high for Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke Thursday to say something revealing about more Fed easing that he can probably only disappoint markets." - CNBC, 6/6/12

A week ago, we wrote about Congress and its wrestling match with the issue of bulk legislative data. Many open government activists were unhappy at the time as the U.S. House Committee on Appropriations released a report that essentially passed the responsibility for improving public access to legislative data to a non-public task force with no set reporting date.

However, there is an update, and it is positive.

A statement from House leaders on Wednesday went like this:

“The coming vote on the Legislative Branch appropriations bill marks an important milestone for the House of Representatives:  the moment lawmakers agree to free legislative information from the technical limits of years past and embrace a more open, more transparent, and more effective way of doing the people’s business. Our goal is to provide bulk access to legislative information to the American people without further delay.

“The bill directs a task force to expedite the process of making public information available to the public.  In addition to legislative branch agencies such as the Library of Congress and the Government Printing Office, the task force will include representatives of House leadership and key committees, as well as the Clerk of the House and the House Chief Administrative Officer.

“This is a big project.  That’s why accomplishing it rapidly and responsibly requires all those with a role in the collection and dissemination of legislative information to be at the table together.  Because this effort ranks among our top priorities in the 112th Congress, we will not wait for enactment of a Legislative Branch appropriations bill but will instead direct the task force to begin its important work immediately.

Positive, indeed.

The Sunlight Foundation and Daniel Schuman follow up on this development:

The debate over whether there should be bulk access to legislative data is over. Because bulk access is a top priority of the 112th Congress, we expect to see tangible progress in the upcoming months. The remaining questions largely concern how bulk access should be implemented to meet the needs of the public while respecting the legitimate concerns of Congress and its support agencies.

While we are disappointed that the task force will not include members of the public, we hope that the public will be consulted. After all, the American people are the intended end-users. Sunlight and our friends in the transparency community stand ready to be of assistance as the technical, policy, and scope issues are addressed.

While this is clearly progress, there’s still much more to do. We will be monitoring this issue closely.

Perhaps the most important line from this excerpt is the last one, which touches on remaining steadfast. Verbal progress is good, but consistent, tangible steps forward will prove that Congress is true in its initiative about creating transparency.

Kudos to everyone who works tirelessly in this space and pushes for advancement. Let’s see where it goes from here.

— Spencer

Congress Wrestles with Legislative Transparency

Stocks tumbled on Wednesday as surging bond yields in Spain and Italy ratcheted up tensions in financial markets about Europe’s ability to solve its growing debt crisis.” - Reuters, 5/30/12

Congress takes quite a bit of public flack, especially considering their record low approval ratings and all.

Perhaps it is not always deserved (debatable by many), but there are events when one can’t help but heap blame on our representatives in D.C.

One such case will likely rear its head on Thursday, May 31 when the U.S. House Committee on Appropriations is scheduled for a full vote on the Legislative Branch Appropriations Bill for 2013, outlining spending on legislation.

Many have hoped the bill would address the longstanding issue of improving public access to legislative information in forms that are easily consumed and accurately distributed in the digital space. Well, in a draft report, the committee does address the problem, but not in the most forward thinking way.

A number of respected open government advocates have chimed in on this, so we will let them explain further.

Daniel Schuman and Eric Mill of the Sunlight Foundation write (definitely recommend reading this link in its entirety):

Appropriators misunderstand how data can be “authenticated,” and kick responsibility for improving public access to legislative data to a non-public task force with no set reporting date. Unless corrected, this draft report represents a tremendous step backward for transparency, and fails to seriously grapple with the history of efforts to free legislative information for widespread public use.

Meanwhile, Waldo Jaquith, who created ethics.gov, gives his thoughts:

This is bullshit. Either that or congress is relying on advisors who are simultaneously very smart and very stupid. What congress fears here is actually none of these things, but instead they are afraid of the fact that it is 2012. By not providing bulk downloads of legislation, they’re requiring that Josh Tabuerer keep scraping its text off their website to post at GovTrack.us, from which all of other other open congress websites get their text. If Josh wants to verify that the version of a bill that he has is accurate, he’s out of luck. There’s no master copy. For all technical purposes, congress is silent on what their bills say. (I have this same problem with Virginia legislation on Richmond Sunlight.) For Appropriations to argue that releasing legislation as XML presents potential problems with the accuracy of the circulated text is to pretend that a) there’s already a healthy ecosystem of unauthorized bulk congressional legislative data and b) that their failure to participate in that ecosystem is the source of any accuracy problems, and that by providing data themselves, then it becomes technologically trivial to verify the accuracy of a copy of a bill.

This is a real embarrassment, both to congress and to the United States. I’ve got a bit of experience in the federal data realm, and I can tell you that in the realm of open data, compared to the White House, Congress is trapped in the stone age. Now we see that they intend to stay there.

As Jaquith points out, people are already editing legislative data and many of these people want bulk data from Congress to ensure absolute accuracy, rather than tampering.

It’s not about control, it’s about transparency and providing correct data for citizens.

Finally, David Moore of OpenCongress lets us know who we should contact with our concerns:

Primary point of contact here should be office of Rep. Ander Crenshaw [R, FL-04] – 202-225-2501 - on behalf of the intentionally, insistently closed-off Legislative Branch Subcommittee of House Cmte. on Appropriations. Give them a ring and let them know that even if you’re not a constituent, you demand bulk access to public legislative information – literally the data that shapes the laws of the land & our shared, lived public policies – and that they’re unforgivably standing in the way of progress on basic government transparency. If anyone from Rep. Crenshaw’s staff or office is reading this, give me a ping on Skype at davidmooreppf to chat voice or video chat, and I’ll politely reiterate the extensive testimony submitted by OC & GovTrack & Sunlight & others on behalf of the millions of people who want access to public data in real-time. Rep. Crenshaw profile on OC; office phone: 202-225-2501.

This is obviously an ongoing issue, but one that is of vital importance to creating a more transparent and accountable government.

Congress appears poised to turn its nose up to this cause. In which case, citizens should be poised to take collective action.

— Spencer