More access to committees

The work of congressional committees, the vital organs of Congress, remains difficult for citizens to access, despite their central public role in developing policies that guide this nation. Their centrality to the legislative process may be generally underappreciated because of a lack of meaningful public access. To address this, committees should post their proceedings and documents online to highlight their work and their central function to the work of Congress.

The American public has a keen interest in having more information about the work of congressional committees, as evident in the proliferation of blogs that track the workings of Congress. Usually, public attention to the work of committees has been stimulated either by events of national significance, or controversy.

As Web technology makes it easier to share and connect, some forward-thinking committees have begun to use their Web sites as public data centers. For example, the House Judiciary and the House Oversight and Government Reform committees have led the way in granting meaningful public access — by posting video of hearings, digital copies of official documents, and schedules of hearings and testimony — recognizing Internet users as public partners in committee business.

Contributors to the Open House Project, a collaborative project fostered by the Sunlight Foundation, recently recommended two specific means of increasing transparency in congressional committees in the House of Representatives. First, we recommend that the House approve a rules change requiring committees to post transcripts of their open meetings online within 14 days. Many committees already post the text of prepared testimony on their Web sites, providing valuable insight
into the views of industry leaders, administration officials and leading experts.

Prepared testimony, however, is only the starting place for a public hearing. Committees provide the forum for a very real interplay of positions and ideologies, visible to the public only through physical attendance or the variable coverage of news networks. The House should honor committees’ fundamental role, and require committees to post substantially verbatim transcripts of their proceedings online.

 The Senate did just that, in January 2007, in passing the “Legislative Accountability and Transparency Act of 2007” (S. 1), which includes the Salazar-Obama amendment that requires committees to post transcripts online within 14 days of public meetings. The House should approve a similar reform.

Since committees’ public value extends well beyond the verbal transactions of open hearings, the Open House Project also recommends posting a variety of committee documents and resources online.

To take advantage of the proliferation of politically savvy Internet users, committees should make use of new communications technologies to open their data in a more meaningfully public and effective way.  One inexpensive and simple advance would be the use of RSS feeds to provide updates on committee events.

Additionally, publishing documents in structured data formats, such as XML, would make committee data more meaningful by giving programmers and Web designers the ability to recognize predefined elements in committee documents, permitting such data to be used for creative Web applications that shed light on the workings of Congress.

Likewise, committees should stream and archive video content to grant unprecedented access to hearings and statements, which would encourage public awareness and creative analysis.

John Wonderlich is the program director for the Sunlight Foundation.