May 7, 2007
By Robert B. Bluey
When Democrats won control of Congress last November,
Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi made a simple promise: "We pledge to
make this the most honest, ethical and open Congress in
This week Pelosi will have her chance to act on that promise
when the Sunlight Foundation releases its
Open House Project report, a 50-page document that recommends
10 congressional reforms to make the work being done in "the
people's house" more transparent and accessible to American
The report is a culmination of months of research and writing by
a group of people who connected via the Internet, sharing ideas and
working collaboratively despite ideological differences. Some of
the recommendations are ambitious; others might be considered
low-hanging fruit. But together they make up the most significant
reforms since the mid-1990s, when then-Speaker Newt Gingrich
oversaw the creation of the online legislative database called
THOMAS and paved the way for members' websites.
Here are the 10 reforms recommended in the Open House Project
1) Enhance the legislative database. In its
current form, THOMAS offers an abundance of data about legislation
-- from bill status and co-sponsors to roll-call votes and
amendments. Unfortunately, it's not in a format that can be easily
used. By making the information accessible in a structured,
non-proprietary format, THOMAS could be used in new, creative ways
to educate citizens about legislation.
2) Preserve congressional information. As
important as it is to give citizens access to timely information
through THOMAS, it's just as essential to make sure the historical
record is archived. With e-mail, word-processing documents and PDFs
replacing paperwork, Congress needs to update its rules to ensure
this information is preserved.
3) Shine sunlight on House committees.
Pelosi would be wise to put forward a proposal requiring House
committees to post transcripts of their proceedings promptly
online. Much of the work done in committees is accessible only
those who are able to attend personally, an option not available to
a farmer in Kansas or an ironworker in Pennsylvania.
4) Access Congressional Research Service
reports. This taxpayer-funded legislative agency is
notoriously secretive, sharing its studies only with members of
Congress. The people pay for this agency. They should be able to
see what it produces.
5) Update Internet rules. Changes to House
rules governing Web sites and e-mail are long overdue. The
restrictions currently in place severely limit the use of new tools
on Web sites and limit citizens' impact when sending e-mails.
Pelosi should appoint a bipartisan task force to draft
6) Create an Online Media Gallery. Citizen
journalists and bloggers provide some of the most in-depth coverage
of Congress, yet they lack what reporters take for granted: access
to the U.S. Capitol. The current structure governing congressional
press credentials offers little hope for citizen journalists, but a
new Online Media Gallery could adopt guidelines that fit these news
7) File records electronically. In a
world where everything from banking to grocery shopping is done
online, Congress still operates in the Stone Age -- or rather, the
Paper Age -- when it comes to filing campaign and lobbying
disclosure forms. By making this information available
electronically, citizens wouldn't have to physically travel to
Washington to access them.
8) Fix the Congressional Record. Members of
Congress have the luxury of amending their floor remarks and
offering extended commentary for the published record. But for the
purposes of accuracy, the Congressional Record should distinguish
between written remarks and spoken words.
9) Videotape House proceedings. Most things
that happen in the House are never captured on video. While C-SPAN
recently eased its restrictions for posting congressional video on
sites like YouTube, it cannot cover every committee hearing or
press conference. The House needs to devise a way to air, tape and
archive for the public as much of its proceedings as possible.
10) Coordinate Web standards. If the House
adopts these proposed reforms, it must also set minimal standards
to assure the timeliness, accessibility and preservation of
These 10 reforms are a good starting point in the drive to bring
greater transparency to Capitol Hill. Just as Gingrich's reforms
transformed the way congressional business was done in the
mid-1990s, so too will these ideas.
Change won't come
easily, but Pelosi has a unique opportunity to bridge the partisan
divide on an issue that should win broad support among Democrats
Robert B. Bluey is
director of the Center for Media & Public Policy at The Heritage Foundation and
maintains a blog at RobertBluey.com
First appeared in TownHall.com
When Democrats won control of Congress last November, Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi made a simple promise: "We pledge to make this the most honest, ethical and open Congress in history."
Robert B. Bluey
Director, Digital Media and Editor in Chief of the Foundry
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