Open Knowledge

This material is Open Knowledge

Openness is one of the big buzzwords on this website and among the participants. Being able to access and share information about the government is perhaps Goal #1, and we use “open” as a broad term covering different aspects of our goals. The website Open Knowledge Definition ( attempts to make a clear definition of Open Knowledge.

Here’s the first requirement for Open Knowledge:

1. Access: The work shall be available as a whole and at no more than a reasonable reproduction cost, preferably downloading via the Internet without charge. The work must also be available in a convenient and modifiable form.

As we know, some government documents meet this requirement. Some don’t. GPO’s data files for the text of legislation (with “locator codes”) are sold to the public for $8,000. CRS reports are not made available at all. Various lobbying/travel/etc. filings were not made available to the public electronically (but this seems to be changing). On the other hand, the OMB’s recent database of earmarks was made available in a convenient and modifiable form (a downloadable database), and that’s a model for future government data providers.

The Congress (if not the whole government) needs to adopt an open knowledge definition, a set of standards to strive for for all public government information.

S. 1: Revised Ethics Reform Bill

As I mentioned last night, S. 1: Commission to Strengthen Confidence in Congress Act of 2007 was passed by the House. The House reorganized the entire bill but left most things intact, and added their own House-only provisions. That means the bill goes to a conference committee to resolve the differences, but there aren’t so many differences to resolve.

Here’s a play-by-play of the bill — what the Senate passed and what the House changed:

The Senate passed Title 1 of the bill as “Legislative Transparency and Accountability Act of 2007“, which made changes to Senate rules. The House preserved them and took up two of those changes for itself (in its Title 3 “Matters Relating to the House of Representatives”).

  • Senate only: Requires that a list of earmarks be provided for every bill and conference report 48 hours before consideration of the bill, on the Internet, in searchable format, showing who requested each earmark, the intended recipient, and its purpose. The House bill seems to water down what it means to post things on the Internet: in some cases, including the list (which may now also be in chart form) in committee reports is sufficient
  • Defines earmark as “a provision or report language included primarily at the request of a Member, Delegate, Resident Commissioner, or Senator providing, authorizing or recommending a specific amount of discretionary budget authority, credit authority, or other spending authority for a contract, loan, loan guarantee, grant, loan authority, or other expenditure with or to an entity, or targeted to a specific State, locality or Congressional district, other than through a statutory or administrative formula-driven or competitive award process” (this was insignificantly revised by the House)
  • Senate only: Places restrictions on earmarks added in conference committees
  • Senate only: Requires conference reports generally to be posted on the Internet 48 hours before consideration
  • Senate only: Bans gifts from lobbyists and places restrictions on lobbyist-planned travel by Members
  • House and Senate: Bans Members from negotiating employment without public disclosure until his successor is elected
  • House and Senate: Bans official conduct between staffers and the lobbyist spouses of Members they work for

Also included in the bill (originally in the General Provisions title) were:

  • Requiring “each [Senate] committee and subcommittee [to] make publicly available through the Internet a video recording, audio recording, or transcript of any meeting not later than 14 business days after the meeting occurs”. We talked about this in our report. But, the House bill changes it to 21 business days, requires retaining the record only until the end of the Congress, and allows the provision to be waived if there are technical or logistical reasons (very vague).
  • Creating a public travel database on the Internet for both the House and Senate — this was made more explicit for the House in the House bill

A provision was also added for the Senate regarding what looks like secret holds, but I didn’t quite follow it (Sec 512 in the House version).

The Senate title also included the following VERY STRANGE provision:

Sec. 116. (a) In General- Any adjustment under section 601(a) of the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 (2 U.S.C. 31) (relating to the cost-of-living adjustments for Members of Congress) shall not be paid to any Member of Congress who voted for any amendment . . . that provided that such adjustment would not be made.

That is, if you ever try to block a COLA adjustment, you will never get a pay raise yourself?

The Senate’s “Lobbying Transparency and Accountability Act of 2007″, which was Title 2 of its bill, was mostly retained by the House (in its titles 1 & 2, which don’t have catchy names). These provisions apply to both the Senate and House:

  • Increases some lobbying reporting from semi-annually to quarterly
  • Increases the quality of reporting (in ways that are unfamiliar to me, so I won’t elaborate)
  • Mandates a public Internet database of lobbying information, linked with FEC records, in a searchable, sortable, and downloadable manner, with timely updates (48 hour delay max)
  • Requires that lobbying disclosure forms be submitted electronically, and requires the House and Senate to use the same software to process the forms (quite an unusual step)
  • Bans Members from lobbying for two years after leaving office

The House added provisions for “bundling” contributions.

The Senate’s bill would have established a Commission to Strengthen Confidence in Congress with information-gathering powers, but this was cut in the House version. Instead, the Select Committee on Ethics of the Senate is directed to issue annual reports on rules violations.

The Senate passed and the House retained “Congressional Pension Accountability” (Title 3 initially, now Title 4), which seems to cut off pensions for convicted former Members.