If it works for chickens, can it work for Congress?

I’m not sure if this is to lighten the mood, but I thought this was amusingly relevant. Michael Pollan, in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, describes the chicken processing operation on a small farm. There, the killing and defeathering takes place in the outdoors.

“This was when I began to appreciate what a morally powerful idea an open-air abattoir is. [The farm]’s customers know to come after noon on a chicken day, but there’s nothing to prevent them from showing up earlier and watching their dinner being killed–indeed, customers are welcome to watch, and occasionally one does. More than any USDA rule or regulation, this transparency is their best assurance that the meat they’re buying has been humanely and cleanly processed.”

And so it is with politics: transparency, a public welcomed to watch, and one that occasionally does, is a better assurance than ethics rules that our elected representatives will legislate ethically and on our behalf.

Baird brings back 72 Hours bill

Rep. Baird reintroduced H.R. 504, which would require that bills and conference reports be posted online 72 hours before their consideration. It’s great to see this brought back for another try. I hope this time it gets passed.

Also, I’ve created a new page on this site, a page listing all of the pending legislation relevant to our report. (Let me know if I’ve missed anything.) It uses live-updating bill status widgets now available on GovTrack.

[Again, thanks to Tim McGhee for the heads up.]

House bolsters database on gun buyers, but will it bolster a database on itself?

The House voted to expand a national database of personal information that gun sellers can use to screen their buyers (as reported by the NYTimes). If the House can fill a database of information about citizens, I think citizens deserve an updated database about House members.

Unintended consequences: Can video ever cover reality?

Glenn Beck, the conservative-leaning talking head on CNN Headline Prime, made an interesting point while appearing as a guest on his own show last night about video taping nomination confirmations:

[W]e live in a world now where we will send people off to fight and die. We will send people off to kill in our name. And politicians will use the confirmation process to become contentious, to talk about the past, to make political points?

You know what? Take the TV cameras out of Capitol Hill. Don’t let these people on television while they are questioning when it comes to war, because all they do is posture. All they do is campaign. And it’s really — it’s abhorrent.

This brings out an inherent problem with some forms of transparency. The more spotlights we put on politicians, the more we run the risk that the politician will posture for the camera and not be a legislator. Maybe that’s what we have today with floor proceedings, which are generally prepared statements and don’t really represent the legislative debating going on, which is instead in committees and behind the scenes. And the committee hearings that are televised are filled with posturing. So…

If we make all public committee meetings recorded and streamed over the web, will we just be pushing the legislating further into the back rooms? By recording a meeting, does the recording itself necessarily destroy the very thing it sought to record?

The same type of argument can be made for many of the other recommendations we’re making, to varying degrees. By making CRS reports available, do we jeopardize (as some would claim we do) the nature of CRS reports as a nonpolitical resource? It’s certainly possible — members might try to use CRS as a tool not for research but for propaganda, knowing the public will eventually get the report. I don’t know — it’s probably still worth it to make the reports available.

But back to video, I find Beck’s point convincing. Video for the sake of “transparency” may be an impossibility.

Open CRS bill in House

We aren’t the only ones after opening up CRS reports. As our report mentions, Rep. Christopher Shays [R-CT] has been a supporter of this for a long while. Two weeks ago he introduced H.R. 2545, the latest in a long line of bills he has introduced to make CRS reports directly available to the public. The bill would make available to the public a “centralized, searchable, electronic database” of certain CRS products.

What’s made available are “(A) Congressional Research Service Issue Briefs. (B) Congressional Research Service Reports that are available to Members of Congress through the Congressional Research Service website. (C) Congressional Research Service Authorization of Appropriations Products and Appropriations Products.” Confidential, personal, and copyrighted works can be removed from the public versions.

The bill is pretty good. There are some interesting points, though. For one, a delay in making reports publicly available is mandated:

(c) Time- The Director of the Congressional Research Service shall make available all information required under this section no earlier than 30 days and no later than 40 days after the date on which the information is first made available to Members of Congress through the Congressional Research Service website.

In addition, the bill requires that no public commentary be allowed:

(d) Manner- The Director of the Congressional Research Service shall make information required to be made available under this section in a manner that– . . . (2) does not permit the submission of comments from the public.

I personally don’t have strong objections to either provision. CRS is meant as a tool for members of Congress, and I don’t mind that they get to see the reports first, nor do I mind CRS not being bogged down dealing with public commentary.

The bill, however, is a bit unclear about how the reports are going to be made publicly available. In particular, it seems to mandate a decentralized system, which seems counterintuitive, and not ideal for the public, who deserve a single repository:

[CRS products] shall be provided through the websites maintained by Members and committees of the House of Representatives. The Director of the Congressional Research Service and the Chief Administrative Officer of the House of Representatives shall work together to carry out this subsection.

Finally, and this is a bit pie-in-the-sky, but I would have liked to see a provision that made it clear that the products should be made available in such a way that websites like OpenCRS, and GovTrack, can download, aggregate, and index the reports easily, besides having a website interface for the public to find reports.

But on the whole I am very happy to see that this bill has been reintroduced again.

Maybe the authors of the CRS section of the OHP report can comment on the merits of this bill?

(Thanks to Tim McGhee for altering me to this bill.)

Review of H.R. 2316: Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007

Here’s a quick run-down of H.R. 2316: Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007 [text], which the House passed May 24 with an overwhelming majority. It goes to the Senate next.

Let’s start with the great news: A lobbying disclosure database would be mandated:

Sec 208. “[The Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House of Representatives shall] maintain, and make available to the public over the Internet, without a fee or other access charge, in a searchable, sortable, and downloadable manner, an electronic database that– (A) includes the information contained in registrations and reports filed under this Act; (B) directly links the information it contains to the information disclosed in reports filed with the Federal Election Commission under section 304 of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 (2 U.S.C. 434); and (C) is searchable and sortable to the maximum extent practicable, including searchable and sortable by each of the categories of information described in section 4(b) or 5(b)”

Section 402 adds to that public Internet access to “The advance authorizations, certifications, and disclosures filed with respect to transportation, lodging, and related expenses for travel . . . by Members . . ., officers, and employees.”

Then the good but not very exciting to me news: Title 2 increases the frequency of some lobbying disclosure reports from 6 months to 3 months, and lowers dollar-amount thresholds of what needs to be reported, thus making more things required to be reported. Unfortunately the bill refers to existing law and I’d have to read that to see what in particular is affected, but I don’t have time to do that now. The title also requires electronic filing of lobbing reports, includes requests for earmarks as items to be reported, and requires the reporting of lobbyists contributions to members of congress over a certain threshold (as I understand it). The title also bans travel gifts wholesale.

Now for what I think is probably pointless:

Title 1 adds some restrictions on how former members of congress can be employed, in an attempt to close the “revolving door” where former members use their connections to lobby. I don’t know enough about this to really evaluate the bill on these grounds, but I’m skeptical that it would have any meaningful impact. Other sections of the bill increase civil and criminal penalties for violating some of the existing provisions.

My favorite amendment (that I commented on two posts ago) made it into the bill. If you don’t say “duh” after reading this, don’t run for office, please!

It is the sense of the Congress that the use of a family relationship by a lobbyist who is an immediate family member of a Member of Congress to gain special advantages over other lobbyists is inappropriate.

And it works both ways:

Sec 401: A Member . . . shall prohibit all [his/her] staff . . . from having any official contact with that individual’s spouse if that spouse is a lobbyist . . .

So on the whole, this bill is a great first step forward, on account of the databases mandated to be created and the fact that the legislative language is absolutely perfect: “without a fee or other access charge, in a searchable, sortable, and downloadable manner, an electronic database.” It better not be the last step, though. There is much more to be done.

So let’s hope the House and Senate can get together on their respective ethics bills (S. 1 in the Senate) and get something enacted into law.

Why is this important? Part 1: To me, it’s about reaching for an ideal

John asks the deep question, what are we really doing here? Why is Open House so important to many of us, and why should it be important to our elected representatives? It’s important to first separate out our specific recommendations from the overall goals. Whether you agree or not with the recommendation for Congress to stream all of its hearings on the Web, or whether CRS reports should be made generally public, we hope that we can find the common ground that transparency in government is, generally speaking, a good thing.

I’m not sure why transparency is so important to me. In part, probably I’m clinging to an idealization of our government taught to me as a kid. No taxation without representation, the creation of a new government by and for the public, and founding mandates for openness in government, such as (as I know now) the Constitutional provision for the Congressional Record and the early creation of the Government Printing Office to inform the public about what laws were being enacted. According to this rosy picture, among the few principles our government is based on is the ability for the public to know enough about our government to be able to competently choose their representatives.

But I’m no history buff, and the idealized picture is probably just that. Maybe the founding fathers cared less about representation and more about ending taxation (one of my dad’s favorite factoids), and more about helping their friends in the printing industry than printing for the public’s benefit

And, for all I know, I would be a happier person if I didn’t have access to the information I do about Congress (not because Congress is depressing, but for instance because life would be that much simpler). The public of the late 1700s may have, overall, known less about their government than I do of ours today, since information moved much slower then, and they seemed to get by just fine. It’s hard to argue why transparency should be a good thing, since it’s not at all clear that transparency really benefits anyone, except for transparency’s sake.

Still, there’s nothing wrong with striving toward those idealized principles of living under an open government. Given the choice, I would prefer to live in a country with an open, honest government, even if that meant I would be less happy.

So why is Open House so important to me? It’s about reaching for an ideal that I think many others share, and it’s about putting ourselves out there, as either technologists like myself or politics experts like others in our group, as a resource to policy makers about what the Congress can do to move closer to that ideal by using information technology. We want policy makers to use us. Yes, we’ve assembled some two dozen or so discrete recommendations that we think are good starting points (see our report for details, of course), but more importantly we want to start a renewed dialog. So if you’re a policy maker that shares these ideals, please use us and we can help you use technology to realize some of those goals. (And if you’re wondering how to use us, please see our contact information on our Press page.)

(I’m going on a short trip, but when I get back I’ll have a Part 2 to this post on a more concrete level, addressing the utility of the recommendations I helped draft.)