The Congressional Data Coalition writes to House Appropriators

Update 5/2/2014: We sent a similar letter to Senate appropriators today. See Daniel’s post about it.

Update 4/9/2014: The House Appropriations committee accepted our request. In their report for the FY 2015 legislative branch appropriations bill:

The Committee request that the Clerk of the House, the Librarian of Congress and the Public Printer work together to make available to the public through Congress.gov or FDsys bulk data downloads of bill status by the beginning of the next Congress.

While we’ve heard promises many times, similar language was found in the corresponding report five years ago, and this may still only lead to data about House bills and not Senate bills, we are cautiously optimistic that this may signal real change. For more, see Daniel Schuman’s post about this at CREW.

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In a new letter to the House this month, we joined 18 other organizations and individuals in calling for access to the legislative data on bill status that Congress has but won’t share.

The letter was sent by the new Congressional Data Coalition, formed this month of citizens, public interest groups, trade associations, and businesses who champion greater governmental transparency through improved public access to and long-term preservation of congressional information.

Congress publishes bill status on its website Congress.gov, but we are asking for it as raw data in bulk. Like on a spreadsheet. As we wrote in the letter:

To illustrate the difference between a website and data, we note that no legislative branch office or agency makes available a spreadsheet that lists every bill introduced in the 113th Congress. As you may have experienced in your own lives, a spreadsheet is an important tool when working with large amounts of information. Bulk data is like that.

Better data from Congress would help us provide more and better information on GovTrack about what is happening in Congress. The same is true of the other organizations who signed onto the letter. We can do a lot of good with that data And while the House did make many improvements to legislative transparency in the past several years, bill status data is extremely important and has not yet been addressed — even though it has been promised many times and we (and others) have been asking for it almost each year since 2007 (here’s our previous letter).

Our request is relatively simple, inexpensive, and uncontroversial. Bulk, structured data is a cornerstone of many legislative information products such as House and Senate roll call votes and House and Senate bill text, which all use XML, as well as nearly all of the recent projects completed by the House’s own Legislative Branch Bulk Data Task Force.

This letter was to House appropriators who decide on how the legislative branch spends its budget. We’ll also need to convince Senate appropriators of the importance of public access to legislative data.

The complete list of signers on the letter was the Congressional Data Coalition, Capitol Bells, the Center for Responsive Politics, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Civic Impulse, LLC (GovTrack.us), the Data Transparency Coalition, eCitizens.org / GovAlert.me, Ed Walters (CEO, Fastcase, Inc.), Free Government Information, the Government Accountability Project, Gregory Slater, National Priorities Project, OpenTheGovernment.org, Project On Government Oversight (POGO), Public Citizen, R Street Institute, Sunlight Foundation, TechFreedom, and WashingtonWatch.com.

14 Comments

  1. An informed voter is a hallmark of a well functioning democracy. Using our funds (taxes) to make this happen seems a no-brainer.

    Perhaps when the gerrymandering suits, for example here in North Carolina, are successful, more congressmen and congresswomen will work toward governmental transparency.

    We really can help you do a better job.

    Like

  2. Our government was never meant to be a “democracy” in the true sense of the word, but a constitutional republic – for good reason, the wisdom of the Founders. However, totally agree with the “informed voter” comment, where T. Jefferson stated that citizens must be knowledgeable of their government and its activities, for once the citizen becomes apathetic, congressional members will be “like wolves” among the sheep (‘sheeple’).

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  3. Freedom of information, could lead to something real.

    For example, I have just finished reviewing the Treasury’s, Financial Management Services manuals for collection of some Debts.

    Having access to such information has saved me from going nuts. And having to force myself to call my Lawyer every time I have a question(s).

    I’m sure my Lawyer is also Happy.

    Thanks

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  4. I’m a democrat, but I don’t think the democrat leaders in congress go to where the people that vote for them are. they are trying to reach republicans that will never vote for them. Get your message to the street and reach the people that’s going to vote for you. Right or wrong the republicans talk to there constituents. In the old day they use to have people going door to door. stop running from the things your constituents want, like healthcare, I’m a nurse, increase in wages, and taking care of veterans, because I am and my children are veterans.

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  5. I hope your letter succeeds this year in getting the action it calls for. This issue does seem of the utmost importance to me. Greater transparency equals greater citizen interest as well as increased trust in our legislative process.

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  6. Please add our organization to your list of signers, Fremont Civics believes in the absolute requirement of the integrity of information and access in and all things that are aspects to transparency in our US Government, specifically and especially as it relates to all things of our US Congress and the members of both the lower and upper chambers. Thank You,

    Aleq Boyle
    President,
    Fremont Civic Philanthropies

    Like

  7. Why would lawmakers refuse to release such basic information? What is their motivation Already, Congress is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA. Lawmakers’ unwillingness to improve transparency is appalling.

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  8. Thank you for pressing the issue again. Knowing what I do about XML (Extensible Markup Language), legislators might be reassured to know that structured XML markup is not difficult, as programming tasks go.

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  9. Congress doesn’t want anyone to see the data in bulk. If you could, it would be painfully obvious how many great bills are just sitting on a desk for years without any attention. Meanwhile, ones which gets press or are in favor of the house/senate leader will get pushed through in a week.

    The wolves part mentioned above is already in effect.

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  10. Our form of government is not the problem it is the people we hire (politicians) that is the problem, when was the last time a person running for office actually didn’t say something about the party or person they running against. If we were a true democracy, nothing would get done, because “We The People” would be at the polls voting for everything decision our government needs to make in reality nothing would ever get done. The word DEMOCARCY is overused and abused by Politian’s. Democratic and Republican Party’s, voters really need to start voting for the person and not the party they are in.

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  11. Is there someplace in your news letter you can itemize the bill/bills they will not give out information on??? Or is it all of the bills????
    They NEED to be watched very carefully….
    Thanks for doing just that.

    Like

  12. This is a good approach to a truly non-partisan issue, not just a D or R or even bi-partisan one. Let’s all pressure our people in D. C. to give us the best opportunity to vote intelligently. Thank you Govtrack for leading the charge.

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  13. This is how I calculate Congress’ Incompetency Score: Average annual income from all Sources: Less than $3 Trillion including recent peak years v. Federal Debt Today: $17 Trillion, not counting the extremely steep, upward curve over the next 20 yrs. This is the equivalent of a bank loaning $170,000 to a family of 4 with a $30,000 income, one whom is critically ill, one whom retires in 5 years, and two whom hold low-wage jobs but owe $20,000 in federal school loans. According to my accounting by tomorrow this family should add to our debt another $1 Trillion (FV) before they die an early death due to the data published on the impact of poverty related to a relentlessly incompetent Congress who cannot read the simple data we already have.

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  14. Henry: It is all of the bills. The issue is that they don’t make the information available as a database, meaning a format that we can take and plug into GovTrack to make our information more timely, reliable, etc.

    Like

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