Amid transparency push, House seeks balance of security concerns, traditions

The chairman of the Committee on House Administration sees room for improvement in enhancing congressional transparency one year after receiving a directive from House leadership to make information more easily accessible to the public.

“I’m fairly pleased, but obviously you’re never satisfied because you could always do more,” Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) told The Hill.

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Last April, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) directed House Clerk Karen Haas to work with the committee to establish electronic data standards for the House.

“At the start of the 112th Congress, the House adopted a Rules Package that identified electronic documents as a priority for the institution,” Boehner and Cantor wrote in an April 29 letter to Haas.

“Towards that end, we are asking all House stakeholders to work together on publicly releasing the House’s legislative data in machine-readable formats.

“The new House Majority is dedicated to changing how our institution operates, with an emphasis on real transparency and greater accountability,” they added. “Ultimately, legislative data is the property of the American public. It is our hope that these reforms will continue to rebuild the trust between Congress and the people we serve.”

Lungren acknowledged the significant progress his committee, along with the Clerk of the House, the chief administrative officer, Government Printing Office and Library of Congress have made over the last year in furthering the leaders' directive.

Initiatives have included the launch of a new centralized website for House documents, which provides all legislation in a searchable XML format, the launch of the Congressional Record in an iPad application, three video teleconferencing services available to members and the ability to stream live video of committee proceedings online.

Though he declined to offer specific examples of where transparency efforts fell short, Lungren did note that balancing technological advances with security concerns and the ingrained traditions of the House has not always been easy.

“As chairman of the subcommittee on cybersecurity, I’m acutely aware of that being the new domain of warfare, the new domain of criminal activity, the new domain of economic and intellectual theft,” he said. “Therefore, I want to ensure that when we do have this new technology, that it’s able to incorporate the kinds of security levels we believe are appropriate.”

Maintaining security has been at the forefront for the Government Printing Office, which has helped roll out many of the House’s new transparency initiatives.

“We are constantly upgrading our firewall and [protection] systems trying to prevent that,” said Assistant Public Printer Jim Bradley. The GPO has been “sort of under attack, but we’ve resisted that. We’ve made a lot of effort on our [information technology] side to insure that the integrity of our systems doesn’t get breached. It is a problem for everybody; we’re not immune to that.”

Chief Technology Officer Richard Davis explained that online GPO documents contain a digital signature that verifies they haven’t been tampered with, a measure the GPO introduced with the 2008 budget.

The need for such security was even more apparent following an attack last summer on the Senate’s computer systems by hacker group Lulz Security.

“We have monitoring tools and processes in place,” Davis said. “And as occurred with the Senate, whenever those attempts happen here, we’ve able to catch them very quickly and take the necessary actions so that they don’t do any harm to our systems or processes.”

As Congress and its agencies continue to grapple with security concerns, Lungren pointed out that in a time of increasing budget austerity, technological advances can help the government do more with less.

Technology can also help members meet their existing obligations, including constituent communications, he added.

"There will always be critics,” he said. “For those who would say, ‘Well, you’re just doing this for the self-aggrandizement of individual members,’ I say, ‘No, look at it across the board. We’re trying to make this place more transparent.’”

“What I’ve been trying to do is say, ‘Look, there’s certain principles we have, certain traditions we have,’ ” Lungren added. “We don’t violate them by exposing them to the public. Lets use technology to do that, and lets do it in a more timely fashion.”

Boehner and Cantor both declined to offer personal comment on the status of House transparency nearly a year on from their edict. But the majority leader’s office expressed satisfaction with the progress to date.

“The ongoing work of the Clerk, the Committee on House Administration and both Leadership tables has established an impressive record of reform,” wrote Cantor’s digital communications director, Matt Lira, in an email.

“From the start of this Congress, the House has made continual progress towards building a more open, transparent and participatory institution for the American people. The work of the past year represents the most significant progress towards transparency in Congress since cameras were installed on the House Floor in the late-1970s.”

While there’s always opportunity to do more, Lungren said the already-introduced initiatives toward greater House transparency are a positive step forward.

“I’ve been pleased with the openness with which people have dealt with this. I think we’ve made a lot of progress,” he said. “I am happy that we are moving in the right direction.”