Open Data

Is Congress transparent enough?

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Bill numbers, summaries and sponsors are all available online for public viewing, but transparency advocates are looking to make more-granular aspects of the legislative process more accessible and understandable.

Over the past decade, there's been a significant push to make congressional data more discoverable and accessible to the American public, moving the centuries-old paper-based process online to Congress.gov.

Sunlight Foundation Deputy Director Alex Howard said that while "the amount of progress in the last five years is breathtaking," there's still much work to be done.

"We have not arrived at the holy grail of public understanding for a given bill, where text can be compared against the changes it makes to the U.S. code, the law that it shifts with a plain-language analysis or summary for what it will mean," he said.

OpenGov Foundation Executive Director Seamus Kraft praised the foundation laid by the legislative bulk data task force, but added that the information currently available on Congress.gov is "far from sufficient."

"The most basic civic right is to know what the government is doing and how that affects your life, your family, your business," Kraft said. "Does Congress.gov pass that test? I don't think it's even close."

Kraft said that one technically easy change would be to integrate plain-English summaries in a tab on Congress.gov that clearly explain what the bill means, and pointed out that staff already writes non-legalese summaries for press releases.

To that end, Howard proposed that while the "natural home for writing plain language" summaries probably begins in members' offices, he'd like to see "some sort of nonpartisan institution... without skin in the game" such as the Congressional Budget Office, provide oversight to prevent obfuscation or oversimplification.

Howard added that another useful feature, available in commonly used applications like Google Docs, would be "track changes" histories that show how legislation is changed and by whom.

Not only would expanding the content on Congress.gov help the public better understand what goes on in the writing of the nation's laws, it would also help the primary users of the site, members of Congress and their staffs, Kraft said.

Some changes are currently in the works. At the 2017 Legislative Data and Transparency Conference, House Office of the Clerk Senior Systems Analyst Kirsten Gullickson said her office will begin posting the redlining and markup process of legislation online by Dec. 31.

Kraft also recognizes that complete transparency into the legislative process is far-fetched.

"There's a balance that needs to be struck," he said. "We're still way too close to too little, but we're making rapid strides."

The biggest hurdle, Kraft said, isn't due to resources or technical challenge -- it's culture.

"The most unacceptable answer in any organization is 'we've never done that before,'" he said. "And how do you change culture? It's time, effort and a different skillset. Yes, you do need money, but you need a lot less money than people think."

Howard added that, for all the technical improvements made, "lawmakers themselves still have control over the transparency of the process, and the ability to write a bill in secret."

"There's still people involved in the process and those people make choices about how transparent their legislation will be," he said.

However, legislators on both sides of the aisle, including Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), have pushed for transparency measures, such as the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, the FOIA Improvement Act, and the recently passed House appropriations bill that opens up all non-confidential Congressional Research Service reports to the public.

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a staff writer covering civilian agencies, workforce issues, health IT, open data and innovation.

Prior to joining FCW, Gunter reported for the C-Ville Weekly in Charlottesville, Va., and served as a college sports beat writer for the South Boston (Va.) News and Record. He started at FCW as an editorial fellow before joining the team full-time as a reporter.

Gunter is a graduate of the University of Virginia, where his emphases were English, history and media studies.

Click here for previous articles by Gunter, or connect with him on Twitter: @WChaseGunter

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