House Legislative Data and Transparency Conference Announced

The House will be holding its sixth annual Legislative Data and Transparency Conference. If you haven’t been before, the conference focuses on the Congress’s efforts to make legislative information available to the public as data, and provides an opportunity to hear from and meet with the people working on making it happen.

To RSVP for the July 12, 2018 event, please go here, and for more information about the Conference, visit the Committee on House Administration’s website.

You can find recaps of prior conferences and links to video from the conferences here:

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.

Greater transparency

The House included provisions to improve the transparency of its operations. (For more on these items, read the testimony of the Congressional Data Coalition.)

It required the Library of Congress to publish a unified calendar for hearings and markups. This will make it possible — at long last — for the general public to have a central place where it can see all the committee proceedings in one place.

In addition, the House will make committee witness disclosure forms available online. These witness disclosure forms were initially created to track the activities by lobbyists, but the way they are gathered and published makes them unsuitable for that purpose. A central repository of electronic data about witnesses will help bring this disclosure provision to life.

The House will also begin to publish bioguide information as structured data, which will support civil society and others in tracking the work of members of Congress.

The bill also directs GPO to explore the costs of publishing the Statutes at Large in a digital format. These documents are all the bills enacted by Congress. Demand Progress/The Congressional Data Coalition was the first entity to publish a comprehensive set of the law online; and the Library of Congress belatedly followed. But the text of the laws aren’t available as data, which we would need to be able to show how the laws have changed over time, or how a bill would change a law. (For more, read this primer from the Data Coalition).

Capacity to Govern

The appropriations bill also sets the stage for the House to work better.

The House will commission a study on congressional staff pay and retention, including a comparison of congressional staff pay against the executive branch as well as its inquiry into whether staff are receiving equal pay for equal work. This look at the staff who work in the House is timely because it will help ensure that Congress has the staff necessary to do its job, and that some of the problems raised by the #metoo movement are appropriately ventilated and addressed. It should hopefully set the stage to address the House’s undercapacity and diversity problems. (For more, please read our testimony.)

The bill also includes a study by CRS on establishing a technology assistance office and identifying the resources available to members of Congress on science and technology. This change is sorely needed and long overdue, as the recent hearing on Facebook demonstrated. While the House did not include an amendment to restore $2.5 million in funding for the Office of Technology Assistance, the margin in favor improved, and had bipartisan support. (For more, read the testimony of the R Street Institute.)

Similarly, the GAO will conduct a study on avenues for whistleblowers to connect to the proper congressional offices. This could potentially lead to significant cost savings, as improved communications will help root out waste, fraud, abuse, and malfeasance. Ultimately, we believe the House should establish an office that provides internal support and external guidance for whistleblowers. (For more, read the testimony of the Government Accountability Project.)

Funding

In this bill, the House began to reinvest in its staff after a generation’s worth of harmful cutting. The very modest 1.7% increase in the Member Representational Account and the slightly larger increase in the account for House Salaries, Officers, and Employees is essential to the House fulfilling its duties, especially considering overall funding for the House of Representatives is down by 10% since FY 2010. This essential funding for the legislative branch is tiny compared to the enormous amounts spent by the executive branch — 0.1% of the total federal budget — and this legislation will begin to restore a little balance to the branches.

What’s Missing

We are impressed by all that was packed into the legislative branch appropriations bill, but we should note a few items that we would have like to have seen included:

  • Providing select staff with appropriate clearances to support congressional oversight of the intelligence community. (For more, see the testimony of Mandy Smithberger.)
  • Strengthening GAO’s hand when it comes to reviewing waste, fraud, and abuse in the Intelligence Community. (For more, see the testimony of Kel McClanahan.)
  • Improving lobbying disclosure by fixing how data is released to the public. (For more, see the testimony of Sheila Krumholz.)

What’s Next

This upcoming week, Senate Legislative Branch appropriators will consider their own appropriations bill. Demand Progress Action’s written testimony requests that they address the following items:

  • Just as the House has done, the Senate should review Legislative Branch salaries for parity with the executive branch as well as examine internal pay disparities by gender and race.
  • Publish the Senate’s Official Personnel and Official Expense Account Report as data, not just a PDF, as the House does with its Member Representation Account information. This will make it possible to easily follow how the Senate spends money on its self.
  • Create a website for the Legal Treatise known as the Constitution Annotated. The Constitution Annotated explains the US Constitution as it has been interpreted by the Supreme Court, but the way it is currently released to the public online makes that document virtually unreadable.
  • Create a Chief Data Officer for the legislative branch, to help facilitate the publication of Congressional information, provide support to offices, and serve as a point of contact for the public.

In addition, we join R Street’s call for a study into creating a technology assessment office in Congress. And, as a member of the Congressional Data Coalition, we strongly support its call for the Library of Congress to establish a Public Information Advisory Committee that would facilitate the Library working with public stakeholders on how it makes information available to the public.

This has been a remarkably productive subcommittee from a transparency perspective. Just last year it required the Library of Congress to publish CRS reports online, which is something we continue to monitor closely. With the departure of Rep. Yoder to another subcommittee, we will see what the 116th Congress will bring on the House side, and of course will be keeping an eye on the Senate.

Resources

(cross posted)

Save the Date: Bulk Data Task Force Meeting February 8

The House of Representatives will hold its next Bulk Data Task Force meeting February 8 from 10:30-12. More information to come.

What should be included in a GPO (Title 44) Reform Bill

The Committee on House Administration is working on legislation to reauthorize and reform the Government Publishing Office, holding four hearing on “Transforming the GPO for the 21st Century” over the past year. (1, 2, 3, 4). It would not be surprising if a reform bill were to be introduced soon.

The Congressional Data Coalition has not been part of the review process, although some of our members may have been engaged.

I want to share my personal suggestions for items to be included in reform legislation, although I do not claim to speak for anyone else and I have not read any draft legislation.Continue Reading

Recap of the Third Congressional Hackathon

On Thursday the House held its third Congressional hackathon–and it was an even bigger success than last time. (See our recap of #1 and #2.) The hackathon cemented the bipartisan nature of using technology to open up Congress (with opening speeches by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer); included the participation of many members of Congress, staff from support offices and agencies, and the general public (including civil society and companies); and featured a dozen demos in addition to break-out sessions.

The following are my notes from the day. Highlights in include the various new tools demonstrated and the work of the modern hearings break-out group. Continue Reading

Congressional Hackathon Set for Nov. 30

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer are hosting the Third Congressional Hackathon on Thursday, Nov. 30 from 2-6 pm in the U.S. Capitol Building. RSVP here.

The event will bring together a bipartisan group of Members of Congress, Congressional staff, Legislative Branch agency staff, open government and transparency advocates, civic hackers, and developers from digital companies to explore the role of digital platforms in the legislative process. Discussions will range from data transparency, constituent services, public correspondence, social media, committee hearings and the broader legislative process.

They ask everyone submit ideas to be covered in the Hackathon by 6pm Monday concerning (1) existing projects worth sharing (on stage), and (2) projects/problems worth hacking in breakout sessions. For existing projects, individuals will be invited on stage to give quick pitches on projects they’ve been working on that are Congress-related and technologically innovative. For problems worth hacking, participants will break out into groups to work through problems that people suggest in advance.

Once you RSVP, they’ll send more logistical information. There also will be a happy hour the day before co-hosted by Google, the OpenGov Foundation, the R Street Institute, and Demand Progress. RSVP here.

The hackathons are well worth attending and are an excellent example of bipartisan cooperation inside Congress focused on making it a better institution. Here are our write-ups of the first and second hackathons. Also notable was the Congressional hackathon hosted by the OpenGov Foundation and the 2016 legislative data and transparency conference. (I still have to write up my notes from the 2017 conference, but it was great.)

If you’re looking for a list of neat tools for opening up Congress, here’s a 2014 roundup up a congressional toolbox,  a list of sources of structured data about Congress, a list of legislative tools, and a wishlist for new tools.

What’s in the FY2018 House legislative branch appropriation?

By: Casey Burgat

The House Appropriations Committee approved Fiscal Year 2018 appropriations via a June 29 voice vote. The bill calls for $3.58 billion of funding for House and joint-chamber operations (Senate-specific items are not included), a full $100 million more than the enacted FY2017 funding levels. It should, however, be noted that the FY2018 appropriation is much lower than the appropriation of FY2010.

On the same day, the committee released a full report explaining the appropriating rationale.

What is actually included in the bill? Who won and who lost the funding battles?

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Join/Watch the House of Representatives 2017 Legislative Data and Transparency Conference

On Tuesday, June 27, the House of Representatives will host the 2017 Legislative Data and Transparency Conference.

The all-day conference focuses on making Congress more efficient, transparent, and effective, and brings together people from inside the Legislative branch with member of the public to discuss how technology can help ensure Congress works for everyone.

The conference is held at the Capitol Visitor Center, and is free to attend. You can RSVP here or watch the webcast.

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OPEN Government Data Act moves to Senate floor after markup

By: Jonathan Haggerty 

Legislation requiring federal agencies to publish their data online in a searchable, nonproprietary, machine-readable format has been cleared for the Senate following a May 17 markup by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Sponsored by Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, S. 760, the Open Public Electronic and Necessary Government Data Act is identical to an earlier Schatz bill that passed the Senate unanimously last year after analysis by the Congressional Budget Office determined it wouldn’t cost taxpayers any money.

What it would do is modernize government agencies and increase their effectiveness, while also allowing taxpayers to see how their money is spent. For these reasons, R Street joined more than 80 organizations—including trade groups, businesses and other civil-society organizations—in urging the Senate committee to pass these badly needed reforms.

The status quo makes it difficult for engaged citizens to view the spending data of the agencies they fund. A taxpayer interested in viewing the companies and organizations that receive federal grants and contract awards would need to have a license for the proprietary Data Universal Numbering System (DUNS). Dun & Bradstreet Inc., the company that owns DUNS, functions as a monopoly with respect to government contractor data.

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Three years in, what does the DATA Act tell us about agency spending?

By: C. Jarrett Dieterle 

Trying to figure out exactly how much money the federal government spends long has been an exercise in futility for those few brave souls who endeavor to try it. Though the U.S. Treasury has published financial data since the beginning of the republic, the government has an uneven history, to say the least, when it comes to reporting agency expenditures.

Agencies traditionally have employed a hodgepodge of data and spending models that fail to adhere to a common metric. This makes it difficult for lawmakers and policy experts to wrap their arms fully around federal agency spending. Since at least the 1970s, efforts have been afoot to standardize government data, culminating in 2014’s Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, also known as the DATA Act.

The bill’s purpose was to make expenditures both more transparent and more accessible. It requires Treasury to establish common reporting standards across all federal agencies, with the data posted online in a publicly accessible format.

The DATA Act has been in the news again recently because the first agency reporting deadline is May 9, the third anniversary of the law’s passage. Right on cue, the DATA Coalition hosted a panel discussion and “hackathon” last week to let teams of data wonks work with some of the early datasets the agencies have provided.

Keynote speaker Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, emphasized the potential for uniform spending data to shape policy by helping lawmakers better understand the scope and size of government. That, in turn, could allow them to enact more meaningful reforms. As he put it: “If you don’t know where you are, it’s impossible to know where you’re going.”

The coalition also hosted a panel featuring three individuals who have been key to creating the uniform financial data standards the agencies now must use: Chistina Ho, deputy assistant Treasury secretary for accounting policy and financial transparency; Dave Zvenyach, executive director of General Services Administration’s 18F project; and Kristen Honey, senior policy adviser for the Office of Management and Budget’s chief information officer.

The panelists generally were optimistic about the implementation process, though each noted the difficulty involved in pursuing new endeavors within a convoluted bureaucracy like the federal government. Honey was sanguine about the potential for agencies to follow the lead of private industries that use open datasets for productive ends, noting that American taxpayers have “already paid for this data, so they should have access to it.”

She pointed to the example of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ synthetic dataset published last fall that will help them study mental health issues among military veterans. Honey also predicted that state and local governments were likely to follow suit on open data initiatives, which she hoped would help expose and weed out inefficiencies in government spending and operations across all levels of government.

The panelists also cautioned that many agencies likely will encounter difficulties aggregating and successfully publishing their spending data by the May 9 deadline. The concern was that if reports from the Government Accountability Office and agency inspectors general catalog widespread deficiencies around the first reporting deadline, it could lead the public and lawmakers to doubt the DATA Act’s efficacy.

James Madison famously claimed that the power of the purse was “the most complete and effectual weapon” that could be wielded by government. Increasing the standardization and transparency of government spending data will only help strengthen that power.