Congressional Committees Project: Best Practices

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A Democratic staffer working for Nancy Pelosi has contacted Greenreflex asking for recommendations on setting up committee websites and making information available to the public. Please add your thoughts here.

Here are two diaries by Greenreflex soliciting the daily kos community's suggestions for promoting government transparency:

Additional efforts in this area can be found at the wiki page of the Open House Project, of which John Wonderlich (greenreflex) is an organizer.

Contents

General Principles

Communication: There should be an open forum where members of the public can give feedback about the website implementation, data formats etc, with a reasonable chance that sane suggestions will be brought up to the attention of website owners and implemented.

One commenter complained that they couldn't email those in charge of the committee they were interested in because they weren't a constituent.

Availability: Public congressional information should be available promptly and in a usable fashion online. Plain speech summaries of Congressional Documents should be attached whenever possible. Here, someone suggests some benefits of bill summaries.

Publishing Structured Information: Where possible, information should be published in a structured format such as XML or RDF. For an introduction to what structured information is, see this document. This includes committee membership, schedules, votes, lists of publications, etc.

Standardized Format

Benefits

Our legislature can garner greater participation and support by publishing information in standardized modern formats that make the information in bills (when they are passed, and /especially/ when they are posted before their consideration), committee transcripts and testimony, CRS reports, Committee Reports, and similar publications.

The Clerk of the House, Karen Waas, testified before the House Administration Committee on September 27th, 2006, about the current state of electronic document standardization and distribution in the US House.

RSS

Categorized RSS feeds could serve to give notification of new documents' publication.

XML

XML seems to be an ideal format for publishing documents, since the data in the documents would be tagged throughout according to predesigned specifications

PDF

In addition to publication in XML format, the final versions of all legislation and committee reports and publications should probably be made accessible in PDF format. The PDF files should be generated from the same postscript used to produce the official paper records, including all fonts and full-resolution graphics required to produce an exact copy of the official record.

For paper documents for which no XML or other source file format is available, the documents should be scanned and saved in PDF format. The scanned pages should be processed via OCR, and the recognized text should be embedded in the file to make it searchable and accessible to the visually impaired.

House

(see here for what the House has already done to create a standardized XML format for itself), allowing for rapid access, processing, and analysis of the information contained in them.

Here is testimony from the Clerk of the House to the Committee on House Administration, on document standardization and XML.

Senate

Here is the prepared statement of the Secretary of the Senate, Emily Reynolds, during March of 2006. (find in page for LISAP). This paper is about creating XML for the Senate, in 2003.

Open Format

It has also been suggested that the standardized format for publication should be "open" rather than a proprietary format. This is an implementation issue driven by a more fundamental policy consideration -- the principle that access to the proceedings of government should be open.

The challenge of managing and preserving vast and rapidly growing volumes of electronic records produced by modern organizations is ... to develop a cost-effective long-term preservation strategy that would free electronic records of the straitjacket of proprietary file formats and software and hardware dependencies from: GAO report number GAO-02-586 [1] .

In the context of academic publishing, the Budapest Open Access Initiative offers a useful operational definition of 'open access': "... By 'open access' to this literature, we mean its free availability on the public internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself. The only constraint on reproduction and distribution, and the only role for copyright in this domain, should be to give authors control over the integrity of their work and the right to be properly acknowledged and cited." as cited by Peter Suber, Last revised March 10, 2006 at:

http://www.earlham.edu/~peters/fos/overview.htm#permissionbarriers

Extensible Markup Language (XML) is a key enabling technology. A flexible, nonproprietary set of standards for tagging information, XML allows documents to be transmitted using Internet protocols and readily interpreted by disparate computer systems by including information about its logical structure.

The Senate Committee on Rules and Administration and the House Committee on Administration, the Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House have worked together with the Congressional Research Service, the Library of Congress and the Government Printing Office to create Document Type Definition files (DTDs) for use in the creation of legislative documents using XML.

Roll Call Votes are currently available in XML at the Office of the Clerk's website and legislation prepared in XML (starting in January 2004) is available at [2].

Implementations of XML include Rich Site Summaries RSS [3]for websites and the Open Document format [4] for creation of documents.

Calendars

Posting calendar information would be helpful: watching details about scheduling floor action through one of the five calendars through committee websites or through a centralized website of the speaker would empower individuals to be engaged with both committee hearings/markups/reports, and floor action.

The GPO also offers both House and Senate calendars, available here.

Accessibility

Standardizing formats and publishing transcripts promptly would allow for greater accesibility for those with specific needs for document accessibility. See this comment from a deaf staffer discussing limitations on transcript availability.

Several suggestions about accessibility issues have also come from daily kos user Tenn Wisc Dem, see especially here. See also this thread for a discussion of poverty and accessibility: 1-800 numbers for constituents, and access to public libraries are discussed.

Suggestions for Committee Webpages

The democrats' new majority brings greater budgets and a bigger proportion of the staff assigned to each committee. This, in turn, should free resources for committee staff to spend more time on publishing information promptly online. Since it is the prerogative of each committee to publish information, a robust recommendation for what information is helpful and effective, along with organizational suggestions for committee web design, will go a long way toward helping us watch committees in action.

Here is a list of the House committees' webpages (probably soon to be outdated with the 110th congress, and the new URLs that will come with it.

The Sunlight Project has compared committee webpages here.

Clear Links between Majority and Minority

Clearly identified links between the Majority and Minority webpages would be helpful.

Link from Republican Majority Committee on Education and the Workforce to the minority page. Notice that the adjective should be "Democratic" and it is labeled "views" rather than something like Minority Committee Webpage.
Link from Republican Majority Committee on Education and the Workforce to the minority page. Notice that the adjective should be "Democratic" and it is labeled "views" rather than something like Minority Committee Webpage.
The democrats fare no better, with this link back to the majority website hidden under the "about" tab.
The democrats fare no better, with this link back to the majority website hidden under the "about" tab.


Committee Schedules

Hearings

A calendar of committee hearings and markups should be available online, going as far forward as is reasonable. The Senate maintains a unified schedule of all committee meetings and hearings. The House should do the same. Further, both chambers should publish the information as an RSS feed (see the note on structured data above).

Ideally, the hearing schedule for all committees should be accessible from one centralized location, with information categorized by committee, date, and medium (C-SPAN, streaming audio Senate example, streaming video, or just prompt transcript).

Daily Kos user willb48 requested email alerts for congressional hearings that will be televised, which was seconded in a request for electronic alerts for any televised meetings. This could be acheived via RSS.

Testimony

A schedule should also be available for committee hearings detailing who will be giving testimony, and making available any prepared statements before the hearing.


Voting Records

Whenever Possible, the voting history for committee votes should be available on the committee website.

C-SPAN recently requested greater control over the cameras in the House (and was denied) and also asked for real time electronic release of voting records. C-SPAN's letter (in .PDF form) can be found here.

Sitemaps

Committee webpages should contain sitemaps (here's google's explanation), to let search engines know about all important URLs on the site.

Transcripts

The transcripts of all open committee hearings, markups and conference committees should be posted online as promptly as possible after they occur. They could be organized by date, topic, and available media (video, audio, text).

Here is an excellent history and analysis from LexisNexis' Congressional Information Service, Inc. on committee hearing transcripts.

Documents

Committee Reports, Conference Reports, CRS reports, testimony, and legislation (referred to committee, pending in the house, passed and failed) should be available in a standardized format and indexed on each website. Information about calendar placement (which of five calendars) and scheduling would also be helpful for pending legislation.

Jurisdictional Agreements

Committees should publish any formal agreements made between different committees laying out how to interpret jurisdictional confusions. (Committees often fight to gain greater jurisdiction. Committees often have agreements over who gets what part of the gray area between them.)

Legislative Support Agencies

There are three main legislative support agencies at the federal level: the Congressional Research Service, the Government Accountability Office (formerly the Government Accounting Office), and the Congressional Budget Office.

CRS

The Congressional Research Service was created in 1914 to provide nonpartisan information for the Congress. Committees often request reports from the CRS to help them consider legislative issues. Open CRS makes public reports available to everyone, and advocates all reports being publicly available.

GAO

The Government Accountability Office is the "Investigative arm of Congress charged with examining matters relating to the receipt and payment of public funds," according to their summary on Google. More information about them can be found here.


The GAO website addresses public availability of information (especially as it relates to the FOIA, or Freedom of Information Act) here. They cite 31 U.S.C. 711, see especially section 81.4.

CBO

The Congressional Budget Office exists to provide information regarding the federal budget. Their description is here.

The CBO is different from the Office of Management and Budget, which serves the president in preparing the federal budget. [www.ombwatch.org OMBwatch] serves to watch, and advocates transparency of, the White House's OMB.

DLR

The Directorate of Legal Research is a little known Research Service that answers to Congress to look at legal precedents from other countries. Their information should be centralized, indexed, archived, and publicly available.

Lobbyists and Disclosure

The Open Leadership and Honest Government Act mentions several things about making the interactions between lobbyists and legislators more transparent. Disclosing more information regarding lobbyists would be helpful, as would making Members' of congress schedules and calendars. Senator Jon Tester is going beyond what others are doing regarding lobbyists and transparency.

Legislative Video Content

Statutory Basis

The Museum of Broadcast Communications has a history of television and the Congress. They have detailed information about the first Congressional proceedings to be broadcast in video, and guidelines about what is permissible to be broadcast for which chambers and committees.

They also mention the Joint Committee on Congressional Operations (now defunct), which was created in 1973 to "examine means by which Congress could better communicate with the American public," according to the MBC (Museum of Broadcast Communications) article. (See sections 401 and 402 of this page for citations of legal information about the Joint Committee on Congressional Operations)

Also, they mention that

The manner by which House floor proceedings are televised is entirely under the authority of the House speaker. The speaker decides when and if proceedings will be televised and who will be authorized to distribute the television signals to the public.
...which suggests that others besides C-SPAN should be able to access the House cameras. Indeed, House Rule V covers broadcasting the House. The rule is relatively short and very informative. Here are the restrictions in clause 2 section (c):
  (c) Coverage made available under this clause, including any recording 
thereof--
      (1) may not be used for any political purpose;
      (2) may not be used in any commercial advertisement; and
      (3) may not be broadcast with commercial sponsorship except as 
part of a bona fide news program or public affairs documentary program.

What does "political purpose" mean (in -1-)?

Also, it seems that the requirement for access to the video feeds is accreditation by the House. See clause 2 section (b):
(b) All television and radio broadcasting stations, networks, 
services, and systems (including cable systems) that are accredited to 
the House

[[Page 386]]

Radio and Television Correspondents' Galleries, and all radio and 
television correspondents who are so accredited, shall be provided 
access to the live coverage of the House.

C-SPAN

C-SPAN, or Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network, is a non-profit run by the "cable television industry" providing video of civic affairs and the US House and Senate to cable providers. They are not funded by the federal government. Their mission is available on their website.

A breif summary of C-SPAN's copyright policy can be found at the bottom of this page. An excerpt:
IMPORTANT NOTICE: Use of C-SPAN RSS Feeds and Audio/Video Files is Restricted. Please Read Notice Below Carefully. C-SPAN's RSS feeds and audio/video files are made available free of charge for use by individuals for personal, non-commercial uses, but they are still fully protected by copyright. Except as specifically permitted by this policy, C-SPAN's RSS feeds and audio/video files may not be used for any political, commercial or otherwise unauthorized purpose. Any posting, retransmission, sale, public performance or other unauthorized duplication of the audio/video files is strictly prohibited.

These restrictions do not apply to floor proceedings, as these proceedings are taped with government cameras and so fall into the public domain. According to Medavid, C-Span does have its own cameras in some House Committees, and applies its copyright to the content taped in these Committee rooms.

MetaVid

MetaVid processes and archives government video feeds. Here's a page of their wiki.

House Web Publications Analysis by Access Point

Here is a list of access points for House Web Publications and primary source information that affects the House, with a description of the content each one provides.

There should be an explanation of what exists now, and laws about availability vs compelling reasons for secrecy (see an analysis of transcripts).

Advocacy and justification can come later.

The White House

The web page for The White House has information pertaining to the President and to the executive branch of the US government. Notably, the website provides information on the President's view of various issues, Press Briefings, OMB (which lays out the budget plans on behalf of the president for submission to Congress), the Cabinet, Executive Orders, Federal Agencies and Commissions, Executive Offices of the President, Nominations and Appointments, Proclamations, and Radio Addresses.

The Speaker of the House

The Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, has a website which provides a starting point for information and links to resources about the House of Representatives, from a Democratic point of view. Procedures of the House favor the Majority (unlike the Senate), so the Speaker has broad powers to control the House.

There are links to summaries of the Democrats' plans for the first 100 hours of the 110th Congress, press releases, speeches, reports, and issue summaries from a Democratic perspective.

House of Representatives Website

The website for the whole House of Representatives contains the following resources:

Calendar

Not to be confused with legislative calendars, which dictate the order in which bills are considered in the House, the House Calendar (PDF) is a general schedule for whether the House will be in Session. Details regarding legislation are not included.

Floor Preview

There is a link to a preview of floor action for the remainder of the week (provided by the House Website).

Committee Hearings Schedule

A schedule of Committee Hearings is provided (for the coming week).

Laws of the United States

Resources and links regarding laws (successful bills) are provided, with links to the US Code and "Slip Laws", which are laws that have just been published, which are then prepared by the Federal Register (part of the National Archives, or NARA).

Indexes

Indexes of Committee Webpages, Representatives, Leadership, House Organizations and Commissions, and notable links from each branch of government are provided.

Rules and Conduct

House Rules and Conduct standards are provided.

Office of the Inspector General

House Rule II, Clause 6 (search in page for: "There is established an Office of Inspector General.") provides for the creation of the Office of the Inspector General. They are appointed jointly by the majority leadership of the House, and are responsible for auditing the finances of the members and organizations of the US House.

The Chaplain of the House

The house has a chaplain, who also has a website.

Office of the General Counsel

The house also has an "Office of the General Counsel" for providing legal assistance and representation to the house. There doesn't seem to be an official website, but the legal basis can be found in House Rule II, clause 8 (at the very end).

Majority Leader of the House

The website for the Majority Leader (of the House) is focused on information most relevant to members of the House Majority. This includes "Whip Packs" detailing legislative information in anticipation of floor votes, "Daily Leaders" describing the day's legislative activity, and "Weekly Leaders" detailing legislative activity scheduled for the week.

Majority Whip

The Majority Whip's website features Whip Packs, Weekly Whip Reports, and The Daily Whipline.

Minority Leader/Republican Leader

The website of the House Republican Leader (a position formerly called Minority Leader) contains information important to the House Minority. This includes: Leader Alerts, Press Releases, a Calendar, a Daily Schedule, Weekly Schedule, and Daily and Weekly Wrapups.

Office of the Clerk of the House

The website for the Office of the Clerk of the House provides a lot of unique legislative content, as required by law. (see the duties section of the Clerk's website, or Rule II of the House Rules (the clerk is mentioned throughout).

Committee Webpages

For a discussion of Committee Webpage information and recommendations, see the committee webpage section of this page. Also check out an index of House Committee Webpages from the House Website.

Representatives' Webpages

Webpages of individual Representatives often contain information about their districts, committee assignments, constituents, and contact information. An index of Representatives' Websites is available from the House webpage.

GPO: Government Printing Office

The GPO explains its responsiblities in the following way: "GPO is the Federal Government’s primary centralized resource for gathering, cataloging, producing, providing, authenticating, and preserving published information in all its forms."

The GPO publishes the following about the House, and makes them available through the GPO Access Site:

House Journal

Accoring to the GPO, "The Journal is a record of the proceedings of each legislative day in the House. The Journal -- and not the Congressional Record -- is the official record of the proceedings of the House (4 Hinds Sec. 2727; Manual Sec. 582), and certified copies thereof are admissible in judicial proceedings (28 USC Sec. 1736)." The archive is here, and covers from 1991 to 1999.

Congressional Record

According to the GPO Access website, "The Congressional Record is the official record of the proceedings and debates of the United States Congress. It is published daily when Congress is in session. GPO Access contains Congressional Record volumes from 140 (1994) to the present. At the back of each daily issue is the "Daily Digest," which summarizes the day's floor and committee activities." Daily Digests have their own search page also.

A searchable archive of the Congressional Record is available here.

Daily Digest

Here is the GPO's page devoted to browsing through the Daily Digests. They also give a lengthy description of the materials covered by each digest:

"The Daily Digest of the Congressional Record serves as a table of contents for the House and Senate actions reported in the issue and statements published in the Extensions of Remarks of the Congressional Record. The Daily Digest begins with highlights of the day's action, followed by a summary for the Senate and a summary for the House. Each summary includes such items as measures introduced, reported or passed, as well measures under consideration. Each entry references the Senate or House page number where the item is reported.

The Daily Digest also includes a list of Committee meetings held that day and scheduled for the following day; the schedule for the next meeting of each chamber, and a list of Extensions of Remarks inserted in that issue. Pages are number sequentially throughout the session of Congress. Each Digest page begins with the letter D and appears in the format D1234. "

Multiple Database Search

GPO multiple database search that covers a WIDE variety of governmental publications.

CGP: Catalog of Government Publications (search)

The Catalog of Government Publications search is a "tool for federal publications that includes descriptive records for historical and current publications and provides direct links to those that are available online."

GAO: Government Accountability Office

The Government Accountability Office is the "Investigative arm of Congress charged with examining matters relating to the receipt and payment of public funds," according to their summary on Google. More information about them can be found here.


The GAO website addresses public availability of information (especially as it relates to the FOIA, or Freedom of Information Act) here. They cite 31 U.S.C. 711, see especially section 81.4.

CBO: Congressional Budget Office

The Congressional Budget Office exists to provide information regarding the federal budget. Their description is here.

The CBO is different from the Office of Management and Budget, which serves the president in preparing the federal budget. [www.ombwatch.org OMBwatch] serves to watch, and advocates transparency of, the White House's OMB.

DLR

The Directorate of Legal Research is a little known Research Service that answers to Congress to look at legal precedents from other countries. Their information should be centralized, indexed, archived, and publicly available. DLR website is here.

Library Of Congress

THOMAS

THOMAS is run by the Library of Congress in order to make legislative information available to the public. It features various searches covering Bills, Resolutions, the Congressional Record, the Daily Digest, nominations, treaties, and committee reports. THOMAS is a great place to start any search for legislative information.

CRS

The Congressional Research Service was created in 1914 to provide nonpartisan information for the Congress. Committees often request reports from the CRS to help them consider legislative issues. Open CRS makes public reports available to everyone, and advocates all reports being publicly available.

Here is a PDF file: the 2004 Annual CRS Report. Tons of information on how the CRS works.

DLR

The Directorate of Legal Research is a little known Research Service that answers to Congress to look at legal precedents from other countries. Their information should be centralized, indexed, archived, and publicly available. DLR website is here.

NARA: National Archives

Federal Register

The Federal Register gives access to: Federal Laws, Presidential Documents, and Administrative Regulations and Notices.

House Floor: Availability of legislation and conference reports

Adopt the provisions of the resolution authored by Rep. Brian Baird (D-WA). It was called H.Res. 688(summary)in the 109th Congress. It would update and strengthen the existing three-day rule in the House and close various loopholes. Specifically, it would:

  • Require posting legislation and conference reports on the Internet for 72 hours before floor consideration.
  • Be waivable only by a 2/3 vote (instead of the current simple majority), if the House wanted not to wait 72 hours.
  • Eliminate the loophole for bills never reported by any committee.
  • Eliminate the loophole called the "last six days rule", an obsolete rule which exempts conference reports from the three-day rule in the final week of a congressional session, when the worst abuses occur.
  • Exactly like the existing three-day rule, exempt declarations of war and national emergency, and certain other special measures.

(Note: More information on this bill is available is at ReadtheBill.org.)

Make all legislation and conference reports available in XML format. (Note: This recommendation should not be used as a technological excuse to not make bills available as required under other House rules.)

Amendments

In this comment, a former lobbyist suggests having a waiting period for amendments before their consideration.

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