UPDATE: The Washington Post covered this story online on June 8, and on the front page in print on June 9.
The government data that makes GovTrack go has been the center of what looks like a failed political power play over the last week. Rep. Crenshaw, whose appropriations subcommittee issued a draft report last week that nearly halted access to “bulk data downloads,” now “agree[s] to free legislative information” according to a statement written jointly with House leaders yesterday.
Throughout the week, the Sunlight Foundation, GovTrack, and others had been working with legislative staff and raising awareness among the public. More than 1,400 letters were written by citizens to their representative about this issue. (In fact, you can read those letters at POPVOX.) The data in question contains the status of all bills currently being considered by Congress and having proper access to it would make applications like GovTrack (among many others) more timely and more accurate.
The committee’s report for the legislative branch appropriations bill H.R. 5882 confused a fear of technology with a reason to withhold public files from the public. It said that technology doesn’t exist when it does, it suggested Congress find funding to “confirm or invalidate third party analyses of legislative data,” and it established a task force to investigate the issue that had no deadline and no incentive to ever make the legislative data files available to the public. (More on that in my previous post and in a post by Sunlight’s Daniel Schuman.)
If Crenshaw was attempting to slow down and bring legislative transparency under the purview of his subcommittee — the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch — he might have not realized he was crossing his party superiors, the House Republican Leadership, who have made significant advances in transparency over the last year and a half. Crenshaw has no history with any efforts related to government transparency, as far as I’m aware.
The task force originally proposed by the appropriations committee has now been preempted by a new task force called at the discretion of House Leadership to investigate how to make the data files available. Although the new task force still has no deadline and lacks public input (see Daniel’s post), we know that House Leaders — Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader Cantor — have made good on those sorts of promises recently.
It was a circuitous path to this point. After Sunlight raised concerns with the draft committee report published last Wednesday, the report was revised in its final version to not halt existing bulk data files. Unfortunately, the committee didn’t tell anyone about the change and so no one noticed the disappearance of 10 words until Tuesday morning.
Meanwhile on Tuesday Rep. Issa scrambled on proposing an amendment to the bill that would immediately direct the Library of Congress to make the files available — no task force required. (Recall that the original problem was in the committee report for the bill. The amendment, as a change to the bill itself, was a considerably stronger directive.) Issa has been a strong supporter of the use of data for government transparency. His DATA Act, if enacted, would enormously improve how federal dollars are spent in the executive branch by instituting government-wide data standards. Although Issa’s amendment to H.R. 5882 was ultimately mooted by the joint statement, which Issa was a part of, his initiative in fixing the problem that Crenshaw started should be remembered.
Rep. Honda has been supporting bulk data all along. A member of the appropriations subcommittee, he supported bulk data as early as 2009 and did so again earlier this year when the committee was first considering H.R. 5882. As a member of the minority party, Honda was out-gunned early on in this round and did as much as he could.
So where are we now? While we still don’t have the data we want, at least it is not being studied by a task force both unfriendly to the idea of legislative transparency and based on severe technological misunderstandings. Instead, we have a commitment from the House Republican leadership that they will look into it soon, and based on their past performance that should be taken seriously. The crisis has been averted. Congress won’t be taking a step backward. It remains to be seen if the result was a step forward.
Still, this is only one half of the picture. Even with the House on board, the Senate still remains completely uninterested in bulk data availability of legislative information. We won’t get those files until both the House and Senate concur that making these data files available is a good thing.