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.

New Madison Prizes to Honor Compromise in Congress

Rep. David Skaggs and his wife Laura established a new award for legislators who advance the public interest through compromise. More details (press release) below.

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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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Library of Congress, National Archives Host Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon

On Friday, the Library of Congress, the National Archives, and Wikimedia D.C. hosted an Edit-a-Thon, focused on updating committee information on Wikipedia. This is the second such event, and the first to be hosted at the Library of Congress.Continue Reading

Whip Watch 2.0

On Thursday, Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer launched Whip Watch 2.0, a free app that provides the public (and congressional staffers) a real-time mobile view into the Democrats’ whip operation. In addition to all the neat features we wrote about when Whip Watch first launched in June 2015, it allows users to see vote totals, including vote breakdowns by party, on floor votes as it happens, as well as show the time remaining on a vote and how long a vote stays open after it was supposed to close.Continue Reading

The House Rules Should be Publicly Available in Advance of Their Adoption

At the start of the 115th Congress, there was a fight over whether the Office of Congressional Ethics should continue its existence. I won’t get into the merits of the disagreement here (although I’ve written about it elsewhere), but how it occurred is interesting.

The Office of Congressional Ethics is one of the many offices and agencies created by the rules of the House of Representatives, which are adopted on the first day of the new Congress. The House Rules are contained in a simple resolution, and that resolution usually is released to the public at most 24 hours before the vote, and sometimes with even less notice. At the start of the 115th Congress, the Republican Conference did not finalize the proposed rules until the night before they were to be considered by the House, and the full text didn’t leak out in full until the day of the vote.

More or less, this is the general practice of both parties, which is neither transparent nor helpful to the deliberative process. And yet, bills and joint resolutions were publicly available online for 3 days in advance of when they were voted on, just as the House rules require. What was going on?Continue Reading

The House of Representatives Orders Seconds on Legislative Transparency

Once again, at the start of the 115th Congress, the House of Representatives included an order in its rules package in support of public access to legislative information.

(m) BROADENING AVAILABILITY OF LEGISLATIVE DOCUMENTS IN MACHINE-READABLE FORMATS.—The Committee on House Administration, the Clerk, and other officers and officials of the House shall continue efforts to broaden the availability of legislative documents in machine readable formats in the One Hundred Fifteenth Congress in furtherance of the institutional priority of improving public availability and use of legislative information produced by the House and its committees.

What this means it the House of Representatives will continue–as a matter of policy–its work in making information about the legislative process available to the public.

As readers of this blog know, there has been a tremendous amount of progress in the last few years, including: publishing structured data about legislation, publication of bills and amendments to be considered by the Rules committee, the publication of the House’s rules as XML, publication of a House phone directory, publication of the U.S. code as structured data, publication of the committee hearing and markup schedule, online committee video, and more. And, even more remarkably, this is all being done on a bipartisan basis.

I’m looking forward to seeing what will be accomplished in the 115th Congress.

Why I Came To Believe CRS Reports Should be Publicly Available (and Built a Website to Make it Happen)

I first started working for Congress as a senate intern in September 2001. I was 23 years old and had no experience working on policy. I found myself responding to letters from constituents on issues that I’d never heard of previously. It was then that I first encountered the Congressional Research Service and its reports.

The Congressional Research Service, sometimes called Congress’ think-tank, provided introductory classes to orient interns on the service. It was fascinating to see all the different kinds of analysis performed by CRS — and there were rooms filled, just loaded with reports on every issue that you could imagine. CRS also provided classes on how Congress worked. It was a great way to learn.

I worked for Congress for the next year or so, eventually rising to become a (very) low-level staffer. Occasionally I spoke with analysts, but generally speaking the reports often were enough. CRS emphasized that its advice was non-partisan and even-handed. When I left, I did what many departing staff did, and took an armful of reports with me.

After I finished law school, a half-decade later, I came back to Congress. I joined CRS as a legislative attorney. It was my job provide legal advice to members of Congress on matters concerning telecommunications, terrorism, and the separation of church and state. As the person who was now writing the reports, I was aware in a way I never had been before about the gaps in my knowledge. I also became familiar with gaps in the way CRS reports were written, the idiosyncrasies of management, and the history and role of the agency.

What was surprising to me was the unrelenting insistence by CRS that CRS reports should never be available to the public. Of course, it was understood by everyone who wrote the reports that members of Congress would make them available to the public. But we were never to do so and even the thought of public access — that there were two sides to the issue — was heresy. I never really questioned the matter.

When I left CRS, I went to work in the nonprofit world. I had — and still have — a real interest in making government work better, and I ended up working on governance, transparency, and accountability issues. It was there that I really dug into the question of public access to CRS reports.

CRS used to be a very different agency. It used to provide unvarnished advice for members of Congress on the crucial issues of the day. But over time, and especially during the 1990s, the mode of analysis changed to a description of issues, moving away from an evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of various courses of action. I don’t mean to overstate this, and there still are many examples of prescient analysis, but CRS changed the way it did its work, in large part because of existential concerns. CRS was concerned about irritating its congressional masters by finding fault in a pet project or cherished belief. The old-timers still had great latitude to share their advice on policy, informed by their expertise, but the agency became sclerotic.

Part of this calcification included a fear of public access to any aspect of CRS’s work. At one time, CRS published a newsletter about its latest research. Later, while its employees still testified before Congress, CRS management became nervous about that testimony and also began to discourage and then generally prohibit from sharing their work even with their academic peers. Agency staff grew more insulated and isolated, focused on managing management and staying out of trouble.

Over time, I came to realize that the policy concerning public access to CRS reports was counterproductive. Members of Congress could get the reports. Lobbyists and special interests could get the reports from Congress or from private vendors for a fee. Former congressional staff could ask their friends on the hill for a copy. But the general public, unless they knew a report existed, really did not have access.

And that’s too bad. CRS reports are written for intelligent people who are not necessarily policy experts. In a world that’s awash with 5 second YouTube ads, horse race political coverage, and the endless screaming and preening of political figures, these reports are a good way to start to understand an issue.

Assomeone who has developed expertise in several issue areas over the last decade-and-a-half, I can pick out problems with CRS reports on issues that I know about. Sometimes there are significant errors — and sometimes they go uncorrected. But overall, widespread access to CRS reports increases the reservoir of knowledge available to the American people. If the first result for any internet question is Wikipedia, shouldn’t it contain the knowledge that the American people spent $100 million annually to refine? Congressional staff often start their research with Google, for better or for worse. Shouldn’t we make the reports easy for them to find? In addition, public access to CRS reports can help make constituent communications to Congress better providing useful context for people who have questions about matters of policy.

Public access to CRS reports is also good for CRS. It builds a public base of support for a legislative branch agency that far too often has suffered from the budget axe over the last two decades. As it turns out, the second greatest threat to CRS doing its job is members of Congress. They’re the ones who have an axe to grind (or wield) when policy recommendations don’t come out the way that they want. The greatest threat, of course, can be CRS’s leadership, which can be so desperate to avoid the budget axe it will doanything to stay out of the public eye, including things that hurt the agency in the long run.

Opposition to public access to CRS report is rooted in fears of the unknown. Even though many reports are routinely released by members of Congress, published by committees, and available through third-party web sites, there still remains this unreasoning fear. It is time to conquer that fear.

Today my organization, in concert with others, is published 8,200 CRS reports on a new website, EveryCRSReport.com. We are not the first organization to publish CRS reports. Many others have done so. Nor are we the first to advocate for public access. We’re part of a huge coalition that includes many former CRS employees. But I think we are the first to publish just about all the (non-confidential) reports currently available to members of Congress, in concert with a bipartisan pair of members who are providing the reports to us, and with a method to keep on doing so.

We have tried to address CRS’s concerns. We redacted the contact information for the people who wrote the reports. We added information about why the reports are written and that they’re not subject to copyright. And we added a few bells and whistles to the website, such as letting you know how much a report has changed when it’s been revised.

We think Congress as an institution should publish the reports. We support bicameral, bipartisan legislation to do so. And we hope that our website will help show the way forward.

House launches a public-facing phone directory for all staff

As promised at the 2016 Legislative Data and Transparency Conference, the House of Representatives launched a public-facing phone directory for all its staff.

This is a tremendously useful tool. It provides authentic, up-to-date information on the people who work in the people’s house. While it (reasonably) does not contain email addresses, it has phone numbers, titles, and lots of other useful information about staff. It also will empower future analyses around employment in the House of Representatives, including discussions of legislative capacity and staff retention.

Until now, this information was only available through private vendors–for a fee–so the launch of the phone book amounts to a democratization of information about our elected representatives.

Using responsive design, so that it works on mobile devices, the phone directory allows anyone to obtain phone numbers and address information for any House staffer via a cleverly-designed interface. You can sort by member office, committee, or search for a particular staffer.

A screenshot of the new telephone directory website.

It’s also possible to download the underlying data set, whether as a CSV or PDF. This may save the House money on printing directories and provide more up-to-date information, particularly as staff move around all the time. The website was built by the Clerk and is extensible, so it may become possible to include the staff issue areas at a future date.

Kudos to House of Reps. for Releasing its Spending Info as Data

Today the House of Representatives published its spending information as structured data (a CSV) in addition to printing three volumes of tables. This is the second time it has done so. (I wrote about it the last time it happenedand why it is important for accountability.)

Okay, Senate, it’s your turn. Publish your semi-annual spending statement as data.