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.
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 recommendations.
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 hounds.
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 information online.
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 and Republicans.