Policy and News Updates for September 18, 2007

In This Issue: [click on the link to go to the corresponding section]

I. Congressional transparency and the Internet
II. President Bush signs lobbying and ethics bill
III. New wiretapping law



I. Congressional transparency and the Internet

"Today, every lawmaker is an "electronic legislator" to one degree or another because the major functions of Congress- representation, lawmaking, and oversight- are all affected by technology," Walter J. Oleszek wrote in a recent Congressional Research Service (CRS) report, "Congress and the Internet: Highlights". Despite the influence technology has had on Congress, the internet still holds great unrealized promises for transparency.


The internet allows lawmakers to interact with their constituents and the public quickly and simply. Members of Congress use the internet for e-mail communications with constituents, and members of the public can email members of Congress (although some roadblocks, such as logic puzzles, have been put in place to limit the ability of non-constituents to email lawmakers). Some lawmakers have used their websites to create online discussion forums. Others have blogs where they can share their positions on issues as well as their latest news.

Congress has been more resistant to using the internet to reveal its legislative activities, especially in committees where much of the legislative activity takes place. The Sunlight Foundation found that only about half of open committee hearings in the 109th Congress were posted online in the form of a transcript or electronic recording [House and Senate]. Voter Watch discovered similar findings for the 110th Congress.

The Open House Project, a non-partisan working group sponsored by the Sunlight Foundation (a coalition partner of OpenTheGovernment.org), formed to make recommendations to Congress, especially the House, on easy ways to begin the process of more effectively using technology to further transparency. The Open House Project recommends two ways the House can increase transparency of legislative activities, specifically in Congressional Committees: adopt a rules change requiring all House committees to promptly post online substantially verbatim records of their proceedings (as the Senate has done with S.1, the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007) and adopt guidelines to standardize the offerings on committees’ Web sites.

In an interview with John Wonderlich, Program Director of the Sunlight Foundation and organizer of the Open House Project, John told Emily Feldman, Program Associate of OpenTheGovernment.org, "The Internet will continue to promote comprehensive legislative disclosure, and this will, in turn, empower public scrutiny." Read the whole interview.

II. President Bush signs lobbying and ethics bill

On Sept. 14, President Bush signed the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007 (S.1) into law. The bill requires: all Senate committees and subcommittees to post a transcript or audio/video file of each committee hearing within 21 days; a public, searchable online database of privately paid travel reports; a public, searchable database for personal financial disclosures and privately paid travel reports; and quarterly filing of lobbying reports with additional disclosure information to be posted online. The Sunlight Foundation has a summary of the law.

III. New wiretapping law

On Aug. 6, President Bush signed the Protect America Act of 2007, expanding wiretap authority to allow the government to wiretap without court approval as long as the target of the surveillance is located outside the U.S. The legislation will expire in six months. OpenTheGovernment.org signed onto a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Leader Harry Reid sharing seven basic principles that must be respected to ensure that U.S. persons’ electronic communications are protected from unwarranted government intrusion. OMB Watch and the ACLU have more. Read the CRS Report, "P.L. 110-55, the Protect America Act of 2007: Modifications to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act", obtained by Secrecy News.


TAKE ACTION: Stop Unlimited Wiretap Authority [An Action Alert from OMB Watch]. Tell Congress the sweeping, unchecked surveillance powers in the Protect America Act must be cut back.

News from Coalition Partners and Others

New Video: FBI Unbound: How National Security Letters Violate Our Privacy
A new 26-minute video, FBI Unbound: How National Security Letters Violate Our Privacy, explores the repercussions of the FBI’s power to demand hundreds of thousands of Americans’ private records without any oversight by a court or Congress. The video is available on DVD from Bill of Rights Defense Committee and on YouTube.

Dept of Justice’s Summary of Annual FOIA Reports
The Department of Justice Office of Information Policy (OIP) has reinstated its summary of annual Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) reports. The information is compiled from agencies’ annual FOIA reports, the same sources from which OpenTheGovernment.org collects the data it reports on FOIA in our Secrecy Report Card 2007. OIP reports similar numbers to those we reported in the Secrecy Report Card: 21,412,571 requests received and $398,500,000, the total cost of all FOIA-related activities for all federal departments and agencies (we report only processing costs).

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