Information About Congress That *Should* Be at Your Fingertips

Modern Americans have come to expect and demand real-time access to information about the things we run into in daily life: the weather, traffic conditions, lunch specials in the cafeteria, etc. Shockingly, though, we continue to accept that our access to information about the laws being considered by Congress, and how Congress is managing other policy issues, is slow and incomplete.

Congress has actually taken a number of steps over the last few years to make itself more open and accountable to the public. Organizations including the Sunlight Foundation and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) have worked with leaders in Congress to change how the body operates. These groups and individuals continue to issue reports and recommendations that would help make information about Congress available at your fingertips. Please visit the references below for more information about these proposals.

What Should Congress 2015 Do?

  • Make Legislative Information (including Committee information) Usable — Structured data formats help users take advantage of computing power to better understand and analyze information. While in recent years, Congress (particularly the House of Representatives) have made progress in making structured legislative information available, there is a long way to go.

    • Set up a Central Repository for Senate Data — The Senate must set up a site similar to House.docs.gov, which is a central repository where users can access all House bills, amendments, resolutions for floor consideration, and conference reports (in a structured data format).
    • Provide Consistent Information about Committee Activities — Both Chambers of Congress must make sure the public has consistent access to information about what happens in Committees. To understand the potential effect of legislation, or why certain provisions are included or excluded from a bill, the public must have access to subcommittee and committee mark-ups and supporting information, including voting information.
    • Provide Ability to Download Information in Bulk — Congress.gov should give users the ability to download information in bulk; this will improve the availability of legislative information for sites created by third parties.
  • Publish Timely Information — Currently, it can take days for a bill that is introduced in Congress to appear on Congress.gov. Congress must improve the timeliness of legislative information.

    • Provide Real-Time Access to Congressional Hearings Transcripts — Congress should begin providing provide real-time access to transcripts of Congressional hearings through automated methods, which can later be proofed and corrected. While some people pay third party vendors for almost immediate access to non-official transcripts, it can currently take months or longer for official Congressional transcripts to be posted. This lack of consistent access to transcripts contributes to misunderstandings about what occurred in Congress, and puts people not able to pay for access at a serious disadvantage.
  • Provide Context – Bills do not appear out of thin air, and they are not the only way that Congress addresses policy issues. Congress creates a lot of information that would help the public better understand the issues up for debate by Members, but much of that information is hard to find or inconsistently released.

    • Provide Access to Congressional Research Service (CRS) Reports –- The CRS produces high-quality, unbiased, reports about a wide range of public policy issues. Despite the fact these reports are produced at taxpayer expense and are invaluable resources for better understanding current events, the public must either rely on Members to release reports to constituents, or pay for access through a third party. At a minimum, the 114th Congress should make available a list of all CRS reports in a structured format on a regular basis. Congress should also set up a system that enables the public to easily access any CRS report that was not created as a result of a request from a particular office.
    • Make “Dear Colleague” Letters Publicly Available in Central Location —  Members of Congress regularly communicate with each other about legislation and policy initiatives through the use of “Dear Colleague” letters. These letters are typically ask Members to co-sponsor a bill, sign on to a letter to the President, an agency head, or foreign government, etc. Making all of these letters available online will help the public better understand the range of issues Members are addressing, and what they are doing.
    • Create a Repository of Reports from Federal Agencies — Congress requires federal agencies to submit thousands of reports each year. These reports help Congress oversee how federal agencies are carrying out their duties under the law. Making these reports available to the public would improve understanding of what federal agencies are doing. The Clerk should establish a publicly-available dashboard that indicates when a report was received so that it is possible to see what reports have been submitted, to whom they were sent, and whether they were timely submitted.

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