To make Congress more accountable, make it more open

Nearly two decades ago, Congress began publishing some of its activities online, revolutionizing access to essential public information. The system was called THOMAS, after our third president. Managed by the Library of Congress, it aimed to serve as a central hub to find bills and resolutions, the Congressional Record, committee reports, treaties and so on. There’s no doubt that, for 1995, this was a huge leap forward.

While technology has changed a lot since the mid 1990s, the quality of data coming from Congress has not kept up. Complicating matters, the THOMAS website is set to be retired and replaced with Congress.gov by the end of 2014. Once this happens, applications that have been developed with this data, and that are used extensively by congressional members and their staff, interest groups and citizens, will stop working.

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Congress.gov could support truly transformative applications, but for that to happen, Congress must provide its underlying data to the public in machine-readable formats. In its absence, many outside developers are put off by the inaccessibility of the information, while others scramble to find makeshift solutions.

Creating a more open and comprehensive system of public data -- not only from Congress.gov, but throughout government -- would make a variety of powerful new applications possible. They could show instantly how an amendment would change a bill, alert users to relevant hearings, or even tie constituent communications to particular legislation. Not only would these changes drastically reduce the overwhelming workload put on legislative staff in Congress, they also would help make the federal government leaner and more effective.

What's more, the utility of open data isn't limited to those inside the Beltway. According to a recent Pew poll, 87 percent of American adults now go online. That number jumps to 97 percent among adults under 30. The Internet has become the central clearinghouse for how we access news and information, including information about our government and its laws.

As legal scholar John McGinnis observed, “[a]s a successor to the printing press, the Internet advances liberty by continuing to reduce the cost of acquiring information.” Bringing the lawmaking process out into the light of day serves to level the playing field with entrenched special interests, who otherwise benefit from privileged access and a more opaque process.

recent poll by The Economist and YouGov showed only 9 percent of Americans approve of the job done by Congress. But if the people don’t know what their representatives are up to, they have no easy way to engage with them. Lowering barriers to access legislative information promotes a healthier democracy by encouraging a more informed citizenry to more closely scrutinize federal policy. One example of this transformation can be seen in the Washington Examiner’s “Appropriate Appropriations?” page, which brings attention to spending bills deemed wasteful and abusive using information from the Cato Institute's Deepbills Project.

Despite flaws in the current system, civic hackers and public interest groups like the Sunlight Foundation and GovTrack have created a myriad of applications using legislative data. Many of these projects receive millions of views, with hundreds of thousands of app downloads, and tens of thousands of active users, including hundreds of members of Congress and thousands of staff.

Growing recognition of our data problem, particularly by leaders from both parties in the U.S. House, has led to significant improvements. For example, the Clerk of the House's new docs.house.gov website transformed public access to floor actions and committee activities. But there still remains a trove of crucial information not yet published in formats that computers can easily use, such as updates on what stage of the legislative process a given bill has reached.

We believe people have a fundamental right to know what their government is doing. There’s still a long way to go, but we’ve assembled a nonpartisan coalition of public interest groups, individuals and companies who want to raise awareness and promote better access for all. Our group, the Congressional Data Coalition, will host its first event April 4. If government transparency matters to you, we hope you'll join us.

Schuman is policy director at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. Graves is digital director and tech policy fellow at the free market R Street Institute.

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