Congressional Committee Webcast Archives Review: I See Progress

One of the continuing themes of the Open House and Open Senate Projects has been investigating what congressional committees make available to the public on their websites. I’ve recently become interested in committee markup meetings, and I was curious to see how often webcasts of markup meetings are available on committee websites.

In a survey of House and Senate standing committee websites this week, I found the following. Note that I counted hearings separately from markup sessions and business meetings.

Hearing Webcasts: The vast majority (32 of 35) of committees make archives of video webcasts of hearings regularly available on their websites, in what appeared to be a very timely way. The videos are pretty poor quality by today’s standards, but it’s still very useful. The exceptions were Senate Foreign Relations [UPDATE: I just missed the very obscure links. Nevermind. All Senate committees have video archives.], House Agriculture, House Appropriations, House Rules, and House Ways and Means which lacked video archives. House Agriculture makes it up by providing transcripts… after several months; the other four committees provide no electronic record of hearings.

It appeared that most also have live webcasts of most hearings, but I couldn’t tell just from looking at the websites once.

Hearing Transcripts: Transcripts were surprisingly hard to come by. Senate Armed Services, Senate Rules, Senate Veterans’ Affairs, and House Energy and Commerce seemed to be the only committees that provided  transcripts regularly. (That’s 4 of 35 committees.) Considering the importance of transcripts for disability accessibility and machine processing (e.g. search), this is too bad.

Hearing Prepared Testimony & Statements: PDFs and other document formats were used to post prepared statements and testimony — this almost makes up for not having transcripts. Four committees lacked even this, and of those none were among the committees that posted transcripts. House Appropriations and House Rules posted neither video, nor transcripts, nor prepared statements. The other two at least posted videos.

For hearings, by and large there is an electronic record available, and if you can find a record you can find video.

I counted markup sessions and business meetings separately from hearings. Electronic records were far less common for these meetings.

Markups: About half of the committees posted archival videos for these business meetings. Of those that didn’t, one posted transcripts. That leaves 18 out of 35 posting no electronic record of these meetings. The notable committee here is House Judiciary, which posts both transcripts and video of business meetings.

A similar survey for Senate committees was done just about a year ago by someone else on the OHP mail list who might want to remain anonymous on this point (I’m not sure). In comparison to that survey, more Senate committees are posting hearing archival video now, which is great. Less than half were regularly posting archival audio/video then, and now the vast majority are posting video. As for markups, just two of 16 Senate committees were posting recordings of markups regularly then, with a few more posting them irregularly, and some transcripts. So it is nice to see that Senate committees are moving more of this information online as well.

One note, some committees display a note at the starts of their videos: “The use of duplications of broadcast coverage of the Committee on Transportation is governed by the rules of the House. Use for political or commercial purposes is expressly prohibited.” I hope no one takes that message seriously, and I wonder what legal basis this message has. I don’t believe I am subject to the rules of the House.

This topic goes a long way back. See Carl Malamud’s work for more.

Additional notes:

Jim Snider replied to this on the OHP list saying that House Commerce had links to some webcasts which were not actually working, but noted that it was probably a glitch. He also wrote, “The last time I checked several years ago House Commerce Committee transcripts were running at least a year late and sometimes several years late.  The public record included in the transcripts also may not include follow-up correspondence on the public record between witnesses and the committee. In 1994 I wrote a master’s thesis on video access to public meetings, and in 1999 an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune, “Senate Hypocrisy Over “Hot” Testimony,” on how Congress inhibits public access to their public meeting video archives.”

Aphid pointed out a Metavid wiki page for congressional video availability. I seem to have duplicated some work, and I’ll need to check if I can update that page with anything new. UPDATE: Aphid also notes there that because many of the video streams are in a proprietary format, it may be illegal under the DMCA law to archive these videos. This along with the restrictions noted in House Rules is a major point to be addressed in the future.

What can committees do going forward?

* For the sake of archives and use by professional journalists, provide a stream that is high-quality (it probably exists but just isn’t public).

* Similarly, provide the streams at least additionally in a format that does not make it a violation of federal law to copy (again, it’s a problem regardless of whether the committee says “go ahead”).

* Remove any additional assertions (e.g. House Rules) on how congressional video may be used. Either it is public or it is not. It is an affront to free speech if Congress thinks government records, of all things, should be off-limits to any part of public discourse.

* Partner with experts in the public — e.g. Aphid and Carl Malamud — on establishing goals for congressional video.

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