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.”
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 citizens.
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 report
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.