Our testimony to the House of Representatives on public access to legislative information

Everything that our government does starts with an “appropriation” that sets a funding level for it. When Congress sets funding levels for the government as a whole, it also sets funding levels for itself to pay congressional staff, the Capitol police, to maintain the office buildings, and so on. (It’s about 0.1% of the total federal budget.)

On Wednesday, May 3 we testified before the House subcommittee with jurisdiction over Congress’s own funding limit — the House Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Legislative Branch — to talk about the importance of funding public access to legislative information so that we can bring that information to you.

You can watch our testimony in the video above.

On our way to drop off our written testimony.

Some of our testimony was based on feedback we got on Twitter:

We commended the committee for supporting public access to legislative information in recent years (background) and our requests mirrored those that the Congressional Data Coalition (which we are a member of) has made over the years.

Our written testimony is pasted below.


Testimony for the Record: FY 2018 Legislative Branch Budget Request

Submitted by: Joshua Tauberer, Ph.D. President, Civic Impulse, LLC
To: House Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Legislative Branch
Regarding: Public Access to Legislative Information

April 28, 2017

Dear members of the subcommittee:

Each year ten million individuals use our free website www.GovTrack.us to research and track legislation in the U.S. Congress. Our users include journalists, legislative affairs professionals, legislative staff on the Hill, advocates, teachers, students, and of course member of the general public. This testimony is submitted on their behalf.

I would like to begin by commending the subcommittee for its support of important programs in the last several years that have allowed us to bring accurate and timely information to our users:

  • The House Bulk Data Taskforce’s legislative bulk data program, which went live in 2016 and was a joint effort of the Government Publishing Office, the Library of Congress, the Clerk of the House, and the Senate, has allowed us to disseminate the most accurate information yet about the status of pending legislation.
  • Several projects of the House Committee on House Administration including Docs.house.gov, publishing the United States Code in XML (with the Law Revision Counsel) [In my personal capacity I was a sub-contractor on this project.], improving the bill drafting process using XML (with the Office of Legislative Counsel), and the yearly Legislative Data and Transparency conference.
  • Improvements to the House Clerk’s website, including new member information.
  • The launch of Congress.gov by the Library of Congress, and its agile-lead improvements since its launch, which is an example for the whole legislative branch in how best to develop modern technology.
  • Digitization and publication of core historical documents by the Government Publishing Office and Library of Congress, including the Congressional Record, Statutes at Large, and Constitution Annotated (though more work is needed here).

Public access to legislative information remains an important need, and the subcommittee’s support for programs that provide such access ensures that accurate information reaches the American public — the tens of millions of Americans who include not only our users but also Americans who learn about their government by reading newspapers and magazines which rely on our service and Congress.gov for their research.

I also commend the staff at the House offices and legislative branch agencies named above who have done remarkable work in producing accurate, durable, and timely information within the constraints that an institution like the House of Representatives requires.

To continue the subcommittee’s commitment to public access to legislative information, I respectfully recommend the following:

  • Create a public advisory committee on legislative transparency for stakeholders to engage systematically on this issue, including but not limited to access to data.
  • Make the Bulk Data Taskforce permanent and fund the participation of the offices and agencies that are members of the taskforce.
  • Support congressional publication of other important information in a structured data format, including amendments, House committee votes, the Biographical Directory (Bioguide), and committee witness documents.
  • Continue to support efforts to modernize the House’s technology systems especially with respect to the work of committees and efforts to connect constituents to their representatives. Cultivate the legislative branch’s in-house technology talent as other parts of the government are doing.
  • Increase House staff levels above their current historic lows so the House has sufficient capacity for policy analysis and oversight and direct the Congressional Research Service to report on on how staffing levels impact the House’s capacity to function, and make that report public.
  • Systematically release the non-confidential Congressional Research Service reports to the general public. Years of experience has demonstrated that public access to these reports enhances the public debate without creating a commensurate burden.

I would be glad to discuss these topics further and tell you more about how the work of the House on public access to legislative information translates into a stronger democracy.

Yours,

Joshua Tauberer
President, Civic Impulse, LLC (GovTrack.us)

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