Transparency Caucus features tools to track legislative information

On June 7, the Transparency Caucus of the U.S. House of Representatives hosted a remarkable forum inside of the United States Capitol that featured ten presentations from government officials and members of civil society on innovative tools and technologies. Following is a run down of who spoke and the services, tools and projects they shared:

I attended the forum, shared insights from the presentations on Twitter, and moderated a short Q&A at the end. The event was supported by the Advisory Committee on Transparency.

At a high level, this Transparency Caucus forum was a reminder of the immense progress over the past decade in using the Internet and associated technologies to improve public access to the raw materials of democracy, engage and inform people about new opportunities to learn about their government and participate in it – and the work that still remains to modernize Congress in the 21st century.

An earlier version of this post appeared at e-pluribusunum.org.

Save the Date: Congressional Transparency Tools to Track Legislative Information

The Congressional Transparency Caucus announced it will hold a briefing on Friday, June 7th, at 2 p.m., in the Capitol Building, room HC-8 to discuss tools that make legislation information more readily available.

This briefing will include discussion, tech demos, and the opportunity to ask questions from panelists that have created these tools.

These websites make it easier for Congressional staff to track bills, find Inspector General reports, monitor floor activity, compare voting records, watch the courts, understand policy issues, and more.

RSVP here.

The list of confirmed panelists are below. More are expected.

  • Michael Horowitz, Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General, Oversight.gov
  • Steve Dwyer, Office of House Majority Leader, Dome Watch
  • Daniel Schuman, Demand Progress, EveryCRSReport
  • Ben Hammer, GovTrack
  • Marci Harris, PopVox
  • Derek Willis, Pro Publica, Represent
  • Steve Schultze, Court Listener, RECAP
  • Andrew Weber, Library of Congress, Congress.gov
  • Sheila Krumholz, Center for Responsive Politics, Open Secrets
  • Veneice Smith, Clerk of the House, Clerk Website Clipping

We will share more information, including the location and additional panelists, when it becomes available.

Save the Date: Congressional Transparency Caucus Briefing on the Foreign Agents Registration Act

The Congressional Transparency Caucus will host a briefing on foreign lobbying on July 25th at 2pm in Rayburn 2456. RSVP here.

Rep. Mike Quigley will be giving opening remarks. Panelists will include:

  • Carrie Levine, Senior Political Reporter, Center for Public Integrity
  • Lydia Dennett, Investigator, Project on Government Oversight (POGO)
  • Daniel Schuman, policy director, Demand Progress Action
  • Tom Susman, Director of Government Affairs, the American Bar Association

Here is the announcement from Rep. Mike Quigley, caucus co-chair, in his “Dear Colleague” letter.


Transparency Caucus Briefing: Shining a Light on Foreign Lobbying

Dear Colleague,

Please join me at the next Transparency Caucus briefing titled “Shining a Light on Foreign Lobbying.”

Revelations of foreign meddling in the 2016 presidential election have renewed interest in the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). The Act, which too many lobbyists take lightly due to historic underenforcement by the Justice Department, played a significant role in the recent indictment of Paul Manafort Jr, who served as Chairman on the Trump Presidential campaign while also working for a Ukrainian political party. Passed in 1938, it requires persons acting as agents of foreign principals in a political or quasi-political capacity to make periodic disclosure of their relationships and financial transactions with foreign principals. FARA, in its current state, however, is susceptible to dangerous loopholes and its lax enforcement undermines other legislation intended to increase transparency in federal lobbying practices, such as the Lobbying Disclosure Act.

Now more than ever, we must be able to identify foreign influence and hold foreign actors seeking to lobby the United States government as accountable as any other lobbyist. In June, the Justice Department released years of advisory opinions which have provided some clarity, but also highlighted the need for reform. In the interest of promulgating transparency and safeguarding our democracy, Congress must take on the task of reforming this vital legislation and ensuring its full enforcement.

Join us as the Transparency Caucus welcomes a panel of expert speakers to discuss the challenges we face in monitoring foreign influence in our country, and work to bring greater transparency to the federal government.

Opening Remarks by:

  • Congressman Mike Quigley

Panelists:

  • Daniel Schuman, Demand Progress
  • Tom Susman, American Bar Association (ABA)
  • Lydia Dennett, Project on Government Oversight (POGO)

Stories From Our Surveillance Transparency Panel

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On May 8, the Sunlight Foundation’s Advisory Committee on Transparency hosted a discussion on surveillance transparency and oversight featuring some leading thinkers and practitioners in the space.

We’ll be posting a deeper analysis of the event in the coming days. In the meantime, you can watch it on C-SPAN and dig deeper by reading some of the headlines that it spawned:

Who Watches The Watchers: How Much Is Enough Surveillance Transparency?

America is reeling over the apparent disconnect between what the public believes the intelligence community is doing, what the intelligence community believes it is authorized to do — and what the intelligence community is actually doing.

With a deadline to extend and/or reform controversial provisions of the PATRIOT Act looming, this is a critical time for Congress and the American people to know all they can about the executive branch’s intelligence activities. But how much is too much?

What should the public know? What should Congress know? What is the right vehicle for these disclosures? Perhaps most importantly, what is the effect on our democracy of inadequate public and congressional oversight? Join the Advisory Committee on Transparency and our panel of experts on Friday, May 8, 2015, from 2:30 to 4:00 p.m. in room 2203 of the Rayburn House Office Building to discuss these questions and more. The event is free for all to attend.

  • Sean Vitka, federal policy manager, the Sunlight Foundation [Moderator]
  • Frederick A.O. “Fritz” Schwarz, Jr. author, “Democracy in the Dark: The Seduction of Government Secrecy;” chief counsel, Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law
  • Mieke Eoyang, director of the National Security Program, Third Way
  • Bob Litt, general counsel, Office of the Director of National Intelligence
  • Patrick Toomey staff attorney, ACLU National Security Project [Invited]

How To Make Your Job Easier With Open Government Tools

Wednesday, February 18th, 2015 from 2:30 to 4:30 P.M. in room 2203 of the Rayburn House Office Building

Open government is vital for public accountability. But, it also fuels tools that can make congressional staff more efficient, improve oversight activities, protect whistleblowers and more. Hear from experts in the open government field — including current and former congressional staff — as they share tools, tips, and tricks to make you more effective on the job:

  • Shanna Devine, Legislative Director, Government Accountability Project will discuss how to help whistleblowers navigate the disclosure process and protect themselves
  • Daniel Epstein, Executive Director, Cause of Action will explore theories of oversight and specific tools that can make oversight more effective
  • Hudson Hollister, Executive Director, Data Transparency Coalition will explore several tools powered by open government data
  • Seamus Kraft, Executive Director, The OpenGov Foundation will explain how to use Madison to collaboratively draft legislation and policy in the open
  • Amy Ngai, Partnerships and Training Director, Sunlight Foundation will show off how Scout can be used to track legislation, regulations, court decisions, and more
  • Justin Rood, Director of the Congressional Oversight Initiative, the Project on Government Oversight will discuss his program and how it can be useful to Congressional staff
  • Reynold Schweickhardt, Director of Technology Policy, Committee on House Administration will discuss a variety of efforts underway in the House to improve digital workflow and regularize committee information

Helping The 114th Congress Build A More Transparent Government.

Despite constant reports of gridlock and polarization one issue has brought Republicans and Democrats together in recent years — government transparency. In the 113th Congress alone they fought to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act, changed the way the Federal government tracks and shares spending data, and adopted new protections for whistleblowers.

These improvements have been rightly celebrated, but there is more work to be done. As the 113th Congress comes to a close, it is time to identify priorities and possibilities for next year and beyond. The task of opening up the government should continue to bring the parties together in the 114th Congress.

The Advisory Committee on Transparency and the Sunlight Foundation are excited to provide a forum for a panel of experts and advocates from across the political spectrum to discuss their ideas for reforms and strategies for success. Join us on Thursday, December 11th from 12:30 to 1:30 pm in room 342 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building.

Panelists:

  • Dan Epstein, Executive Director, Cause of Action
  • Sean Moulton, Director of Open Government Policy, Center for Effective Government
  • Shanna Devine, Legislative Director, Government Accountability Project
  • Rick Blum, Coordinator, Sunshine in Government Initiative
  • Matt Rumsey, Policy Associate, The Sunlight Foundation

Event Recap: Bringing Light Into The Law

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On Monday, September 22nd a group of experts joined the Advisory Committee on Transparency and the Sunlight Foundation to discuss the increasingly complicated nature of public access to law.

Laws passed by Congress and state legislatures are far from the only documents that have the power of law. Technical standards, secret court opinions, municipal regulations, complex international trade documents, and more touch every American. These are often nearly impossible, and sometimes illegal, for the public to access.

Participants in the panel discussion, moderated by the Sunlight Foundation’s Matt Rumsey, covered the full scope of this topic from the technical challenges that go along with making the law accessible to the legal arguments used by government to hide the law — and by watchdogs to open it up.

Gabe Rottman, legislative counsel and policy adviser at the American Civil Liberties Union, highlighted some of his organization’s efforts to open up legal documents that have the force of law. These documents, while never passed by a legislature or reviewed by a court, guide executive branch policy in cases related to torture, targeted killings, surveillance, and more. He used these examples to highlight a number of serious dangers associated with secret law and forcefully argued that making law in secret and withholding it from public knowledge de-legitimizes the lawmaking process and leads to bad law.

Patrice McDermott, executive director of OpenTheGovernment.org, focused on a few specific reforms that could significantly improve public access to law. She noted some simple reforms to the Freedom of Information Act, that could become law soon, may make it easier to gain access to vital executive branch legal documents. She also highlighted the troublesome issue of “access for pay” that comes up when private companies are given control over legal documents and then hide those documents behind paywalls.

Daniel Schuman, policy director at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, set the historical stage by explaining that access to law has been baked into American democracy since the start of our union. While citizens have always had an expectation of easy access, the Internet changed everything by making it exponentially easier to disseminate and access information. Given technological changes and the power of our government, Schuman argued, citizen access must be proportional to the law’s ability to affect lives.

As the only government employee on the panel it might have been expected that V. David Zvenyach, general counsel to the Washington, DC City Council, would feel differently than the other panelists. But, that was far from the case. David detailed some of his efforts, both as a government employee and private citizen, to make the laws of the District of Columbia more easily available to its citizens. He particularly highlighted some of the technical — and contractual — challenges associated with making complex legal documents available online.

All of the speakers agreed that public access to law is vital to a healthy, well functioning democracy.

Unfortunately, due to some technical difficulties, we are not able to share an audio or video recording of the event. You can view a more detailed wrap up from U.S. News and World Report.

Bringing Light Into The Law: Access To Law In A Rapidly Changing World

Public access to the laws of the land is a principle that has thrived for centuries. Without it, citizens would be powerless to navigate everyday interactions with their governments and the “rule of law” could collapse. Unfortunately, the scope of “law” has expanded rapidly and public access is struggling to keep up.

Laws passed by Congress and State legislatures are far from the only documents that have the power of law. Technical standards, secret court opinions, municipal regulations, complex international trade documents, and more touch every American. These are often nearly impossible, and sometimes illegal, for the public to access.

The Advisory Committee on Transparency is excited to host a conversation on Monday, September 22 from 2:00 – 3:30 pm in room 2203 of the Rayburn House Office Buildingexploring these “secret laws” and discussing ways to boost the public’s ability to access and understand them. You can register for this free event here.

Panelists:

*Daniel Schuman, Policy Director, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington

*Gabe Rottman, Legislative Counsel and Policy Adviser, American Civil Liberties Union

*Patrice McDermott, Executive Director, OpenTheGovernment.org

*V. David Zvenyach, General Counsel, Council of the District of Columbia

*Moderator: Matt Rumsey, the Sunlight Foundation

The Future Of FOIA: Moving The Freedom Of Information Act Into The 21st Century

To celebrate Sunshine Week and recent House passage of the FOIA Act, the Sunlight Foundation and the Advisory Committee on Transparency are hosting an event on the Future of FOIA. The panel discussion will assess efforts and ideas to bring the Freedom of Information Act into the future, ensuring that it continues to be an effective tool to shed light on the inner workings of government far into the 21st century.

The event will be held on Wednesday, March 19 from 2:00 – 3:30 p.m. in room 2203 of the Rayburn House Office Building. The panel of experts will include:

  • Amy Bennett: Assistant Director, OpenTheGovernment.org
  • Ali Ahmad: Majority Staff, House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform
  • Corinna Zarek: Policy Adviser for Open Government, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy
  • Krista Boyd: Minority Staff, House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform
  • Ginger McCall, Moderator: Associate Director, Electronic Privacy Information Center