Six easy wins to improve transparency on Capitol Hill 
© Greg Nash

With a new Congress and a new president, more attention is being placed on Capitol Hill than since the election of Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaGOP rep: North Korea wants Iran-type nuclear deal Dems fear lasting damage from Clinton-Sanders fight Iran's president warns US will pay 'high cost' if Trump ditches nuclear deal MORE. Over the last 8 years, Congress has made some tremendous strides toward improving the transparency and availability of legislative information. 

Congress has made bill data available in bulk form, put every House hearing on YouTube, published an XML record of House floor amendments and launched a new and improved Congress.gov. There is still more work that can be done to increase the ease upon which advocates and citizens can follow and engage with what is happening on Capitol Hill. 

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The following are six ways to improve transparency on the Hill in order of impact. 

Improve Bill Summaries

Accompanying every bill on Congress.gov is a bill summary. In their current form, they are incredibly technical and don’t help advocates or legislative staff understand what a bill actually does. By making them more concise and improving the clarity, staff and advocates alike could better follow what is happening on the Hill. 

Make Committee Votes Available in Machine Readable Form

A significant amount of the work legislators do happens in committee. Unfortunately, the results of that work in the House are published in PDFs on each committee’s website, often with nothing but a few check marks. This makes it incredibly difficult to track how legislators are voting and what issues they are taking positions on. No internal system or website has the information about which way legislators voted, leaving members of Congress and advocates in the dark when it comes to knowing who is attending committee and which way they are voting. The House should collect all the committee votes, publish them in a central place, and make sure they’re in a digital format. Of course, it’d be great to make the text of the amendments available, too.

Publish Senate Amendments in XML Ahead of Votes

Right now, the Senate amendment tree is a hidden secret and legislators, on occasion, offer handwritten amendments to legislation. Even when it is typed and submitted in advance, the public does not have access to it. With such consequential decisions happening on Capitol Hill, having the correct and most up to date text is essential. 

Put All Senate Committee Hearings on YouTube

The House has set an incredible example by posting all committee hearings on YouTube and making them easily accessible to the public. More importantly, Google’s speech to text translation has improved to provide a reasonable transcript of the hearings. It would greatly help for those hard of hearing if the Senate would do the same. 

Publish the Congressional Record in XML

Day in and day out, legislators take the floor to make statements and diligent clerks record every word they say. This information is published only in PDF making it very difficult to do anything meaningful with the records. 

Make Congressional Research Service Reports Publicly Available

Due to the hard work of Demand Progress and the R Street Institute, every non-confidential Congressional Research Service report available to congressional staff is available online. However, the Library of Congress and the Congressional Research Service should take the official step and make them public on their official website so that even more Americans would know about them. 

As the political climate becomes more polarized, legislative information must be available and accessible. By developing new resources and building upon existing ones, Capitol Hill can continue to increase transparency and help create more engaged advocates and citizens.

Alex With is the Cofounder and CEO of Quorum.  


The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.