How serious is the 112th Congress about transparency? The answer to that question depends on who you ask, as panelists proved at an Oct. 1 Advisory Committee on Transparency panel discussion. Though the 112th Congress received mixed reviews of its transparency record, panelists agreed some key improvements have been made and there is still room for progress.
The panel discussion, moderated by ACT Director and Sunlight Foundation Policy Counsel Daniel Schuman, made the different views on congressional transparency progress clear. Hugh Halpern, staff director of the House Committee on Rules, praised the 112th Congress and its leadership for modernizing how it operates and shares information with the public. One critical step he noted was that Congress for the first time recognizes paper and electronic documents as being equal. That means the cumbersome step of printing is eliminated, and having information available in electronic format brings it one step closer to being available online for the public. He also cited mandatory web-casting of committee events, an effort to obey the “3-day rule” requiring posting of bills for three calendar days before votes, and the launch of docs.house.gov where information is posted for public review. Halpern noted Congress is still in the process of implementing rules changes made in the 112th, and he does not see the need for many rules changes for the 113th. Halpern emphasized that the 112th Congress is open to constructive criticism, but he thinks the group can be very proud of its transparency record.
Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute and founder of WashingtonWatch.com, had some different thoughts on how the 112th performed in the transparency arena. The Cato Institute graded Congress on efforts to be more open, based on factors such as authoritative sourcing, availability, machine discoverability, and machine readability, and the results were not good, Harper said. The grades are a lagging indicator, Harper added, because Congress is making more data available and the transparency community has yet to sift through the data and understand it.
John Wonderlich, policy director at the Sunlight Foundation, agreed with Halpern and Harper that there has been progress in gaining access to the official work of Congress. He saiddocs.house.gov has been under-appreciated in terms of how much information if offers. Timestamps, for example, allow viewers to assess how long bills were available before votes, adding an accountability element to the posts. The 112th Congress’ record on ethics and influence is mixed because the laws regulating campaign finance are unclear, Wonderlich said. He cited the STOCK Act as one example of an improvement that will provide new financial disclosure information to dig into, though he said it could be improved by requiring real-estate disclosures. Wonderlich also assessed how political power functions, noting that it has been disorderly for the past two years because of divided government.
During a question and answer session at the end of the panel discussion, the panelists also discussed topics ranging from why the public should care about access to Congress to what next steps should be taken toward greater transparency. Halpern, Harper and Wonderlich once again found common themes: that a transparent Congress is key to our system of government, and more steps should be taken to advance the progress that has been made so far in bringing information to the public.