Congress at a Glance

What is Congress doing this week? The answer to this question—an assortment of hearings and markups in the House and Senate—is surprisingly difficult to find. A few publications sell this information to congressional insiders with money to burn, but only recently has a comprehensive free source of this information become available.

The privately-run congressional website GovTrack just began publishing a committee meetings calendar for all hearings and markups scheduled in the House or Senate, updated daily. This calendar levels the playing field for small non-profits and private citizens otherwise not able to afford comprehensive scheduling information.

Both Senate and House rules require nearly all committees to publish committee scheduling information a week in advance (three days for some House meetings). For a while now, the Senate aggregated the scheduling information in one place both in human-readable and machine-readable formats, but the House buried information on multiple committee webpages, often in PDFs, except for a listing of the upcoming day’s events.

With the House’s launch of its impressive new website, docs.house.gov, users can obtain information about that chamber’s activities as soon as it is scheduled. In fact, docs.house.gov goes further than the Senate website and contains relevant committee documents such as witness testimony and legislation about to be considered on the House floor. The House Rules Committee also has vast amounts of data about amendments offered for consideration on the floor.

All this means that it is now possible to combine House and Senate data to get a fuller picture of what is happening in committees across the legislative branch. (A few entities, such as Senate Appropriators, don’t have to follow these publication rules.) One would expect Congress’ flagship legislative information website, Congress.gov, to combine this information into one helpful, public-facing list, but that is not yet the case.

Traditionally, civic activists have led on congressional technology issues, with their innovations slowly leaking over into official practice. One could imagine a central list of upcoming hearings and markups that contains links to live and archived video, committee documents, witness lists, and other useful information, all in one place.

Until then, GovTrack’s unified list of committee activities has transformed civic data published by Congress into something everyone can use.

Cross-posted from CREW.

Congressional Data Coalition asks Senate to publish legislative info in digital formats

Earlier today, the Congressional Data Coalition submitted testimony to the Senate Appropriations Committee on improving public access to legislative information. The coalition made two requests.

First, we asked the Senate to concur with legislative language passed by the House of Representatives and direct the secretary of the Senate to work to implement bulk access to bill status information. Second, we requested that the Senate authorize the Library of Congress and the Government Printing Office to publish bill summary information in bulk in the same fashion as does the House of Representatives.

The Congressional Data Coalition previously had submitted testimony to House appropriators requesting bulk access to bill status information. While this recommendation was not adopted in subcommittee, an amendment to this effect offered by Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., was adopted by the full committee in early April and passed by the House of Representatives yesterday.

The House of Representatives has led in making legislative information available to the public in digital formats. We hope the Senate will engage in efforts to ensure the public has access to congressional activities in a manner befitting our modern technological age.

The letter was jointly co-authored by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and Civic Impulse, LLC, on behalf of the Congressional Data Coalition. It was signed by the Data Transparency Coalition, Legisworks.org, the National Priorities Project, the OpenGov Foundation, OpenTheGovernment.org, the R Street Institute, the Sunlight Foundation, WashingtonWatch.com, Jerry Hall of eCitizens.org and GovAlert.me, Molly Schwartz of the R Street Institute and Gregory Slater.

Federal News Radio interview on the Congressional Data Coalition

Earlier today, Emily Kopp of Federal News Radio interviewed Congressional Data Coalition chairman Daniel Schuman about the launch of the coalition and a recent victory in the House of Representatives. Listen here.

Big step for public access to legislation

Earlier today, the House of Representatives’ Appropriations Committee made a major move towards improving public access to legislative information. In layman’s terms, the committee said that by the beginning of the next Congress information about the disposition of bills—where they are in the legislative process and who authored or co-sponsored the legislation—will be published in a way that computers can easily process, and thus can be easily reused by apps and websites.

Americans access legislative information through third-party sites. This change in publication policy will help guarantee that accurate, timely, and complete legislative information is directly available from the official source. Congress already publishes the text of legislation in a structured format that is downloadable in bulk.

The committee specifically directed the Clerk of the House to work with the Librarian of Congress and the Public Printer to publish bill status information for bulk data downloads by the beginning of the next congress. This has been a long-standing request of the public interest community and was the subject of a recent letter sent by CREW and GovTrack.us on behalf of the newly formed Congressional Data Coalition.

The report language came at the behest of Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL), who recommended the committee adopt this language in its report. His recommendation was the culmination of many years of hard work by legislative transparency advocates in both parties, including (but not limited to) Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), Minority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), and Reps. Darrell Issa (R-CA), Mike Quigley (D-IL), Mike Honda (D-CA), and Ander Crenshaw (R-FL).

In June 2012, Speaker Boehner, Majority Leader Cantor, and then-Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Ander Crenshaw issued a letter on the occasion of the establishment of a Legislative Bulk Data Task Force charged with looking into improved public access to legislative information, stating “our goal is to provide bulk access to legislative information the American people without further delay.” Rep. Issa had offered an amendment to put that requirement into law, but withdrew it pending the report of the Task Force. In its December 2013 report, the Task Force recommended “that it be a priority for Legislative Branch agencies to publish legislative information in XML and provide bulk access to that data.” While the issue was not raised during the recent Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee hearings, Ranking Member Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-FL) singled out Rep. Quigley at the full committee hearing for making the recommendation.

With the report language in the final committee report, it is unclear what additional action, if any, is necessary to put it into effect. The House Appropriations Committee has tremendous sway over legislative branch agencies, who may spring to comply even in the absence of floor action in the House. The Senate, in its own committee report, may not address the issue (thus perhaps giving tacit approval) or may expressly agree or disagree to bulk publication of bill status information. Indeed, the Senate’s Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee is still reviewing its appropriation bill, having met just yesterday.

Regardless, today’s action in the House is a significant win for transparency. Public interest advocates have been fighting for bulk access to legislative information at least since May 2007, and the House has now put its full weight on the side of legislative transparency.

Here is the report language:

The Committee request that the Clerk of the House, the Librarian of Congress and the Public Printer work together to make available to the public through Congress.gov or FDsys bulk data downloads of bill status by the beginning of the next Congress.

Advisory: Congressional Data Coalition to launch on 4-04


FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
1 April 2014
CONTACT: Derrick Crowe
202.408.5565; dcrowe@citizensforethics.org
CONGRESSIONAL DATA COALITION LAUNCHES TO STRENGTHEN PUBLIC ONLINE ACCESS TO LEGISLATIVE PROCESSBipartisan leaders in civic tech discuss redesigning Congress for the digital ageWHAT: Official launch of the Congressional Data Coalition and discussion on public access to congressional information

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Video and presentation from BDTF

In case you weren’t able to attend in person, here’s a video and presentation from Monday’s Bulk Data Task Force meeting.

No news is good news

This page will be updated when the Congressional Data Coalition officially launches. In the mean time, check out our principles or join the coalition. Or enjoy some lovely music.

Timeline of US legislative documents and data

1844
  • The message, “What hath God wrought?” sent later by “Morse Code” from the old Supreme Court chamber in the United States Capitol to Samuel Morse’s partner in Baltimore, officially opened the completed telegraph line of May 24, 1844. (1)
1845
  • The private firm, Little, Brown, and Company, began publishing the Statutes at Large under authority granted by a joint resolution of the 28th Congress. (1)
1859
  • Charles Lanman, an author and former secretary to Daniel Webster, assembled the first collection of biographies of former and sitting Members for his Dictionary of Congress. (1)
1873