Tag: transparency

A Transparency Milestone

This week, I reported at the Daily Caller (and got a very nice write-up) about a minor milestone in the advance of government transparency: We recently finished adding computer-readable code to every version of every bill in the 113th Congress.

That’s an achievement. More than 10,000 bills were introduced in Congress’s last-completed two-year meeting (2013-14). We marked up every one of them with additional information.

We’ve been calling the project “Deepbills” because it allows computers to see more deeply into the content of federal legislation. We added XML-format codes to the texts of bills, revealing each reference to federal agencies and bureaus, and to existing laws no matter how Congress cited them. Our markup also automatically reveals budget authorities, i.e., spending.

Want to see every bill that would have amended a particular title or section of the U.S. code? Deepbills data allows that.

Want to see all the bills that referred to the Administration on Aging at HHS? Now that can be done.

Want to see every member of Congress who proposed a new spending program and how much they wanted to spend? Combining Deepbills data with other data allows you to easily collect that imporant information.

Congress’s Blank-Check Bills

Luke Rosiak at the Washington Examiner filed a report late last week on a little recognized, but important congressional practice: proposing open-ended spending. In the last Congress, fully 700 bills proposed spending without limits. That’s a lot.

A quick primer: congressional spending is a two-step process. First, there must be an authorization of appropriations. Then Congress appropriates funds, providing actual authority for executive branch agencies to spend.

The committees in Congress are divided by type between authorizing committees and appropriations committees. Authorizers are supposed to do the bulk of the oversight and authorize spending at amounts they determine. Appropriators would then dole out funds specifically. But over the years, the division of labor has shifted and power has collected in the appropriations committees, whose members are often referred to as “cardinals” … like “College of Cardinals.”

Backward incentives explain this. Members of Congress who authorize spending naturally appear to be pro-spending, which has political costs. The costs are at their worst when a specific amount is involved. “Senator So-and-So wants to spend $50 million on what?!” So many authorizing committees shirk their duties by eschewing reauthorization of the agencies in their jurisdiction. And sometimes the trick is authorizing spending of “such sums as may be necessary,” which doesn’t provide as good an angle for political attack.

representatives who wrote the most blank checksThat would make appropriators the only drag on spending, but it doesn’t because of a second perversion in politics. Appropriators get good enough at gathering the political emoluments of spending that they overcome the negatives and become an institutional pro-spending bloc. As Mike Franc of the Heritage Foundation put it in 2011, “appropriators, their professional staff, and legions of lobbyists serve as a mutually reinforcing triad bent on increasing spending today, tomorrow, and forevermore.”

Rosiak notes that the House Republican leadership cautioned against open-ended spending proposals at the beginning of the 113th Congress. Consequently, Republican blank-check bills are more rare. The top open-ended spenders are all Democrats, and they’re all on the party’s left wing.

So what’s to be done?

In 2010, the Senate joined the House in banning earmarks. This came after a few short years of applied transparency in the earmark area, including a contest to gather earmark data conducted by yours truly on WashingtonWatch.com. A group called Taxpayers Against Earmarks (now Ending Spending) applied some direct pressure. And a host of other groups were involved, of course.

The practice of proposing open-ended spending could similarly be curtailed with public oversight and pressure.

So who should do that work?

We’ve already started. Rosiak’s story was produced using the Cato Institute’s Deepbills data.

Police Body Cameras Raise Privacy Issues for Cops and the Public

Advocates of increased transparency in law enforcement are understandably keen to see more police officers wearing body cameras. Not only is there some evidence that police officers wearing body cameras contributes to a decline in police “use-of-force” incidents, footage from police cameras has provided useful evidence to those investigating allegations of police misconduct. Yet despite the benefits of police body cameras there are serious privacy concerns that must be considered and addressed as they become more common.

Perhaps the most obvious privacy concerns are those of the civilians filmed by police officers. If footage from police body cameras is considered public record then hours of footage of innocent people’s interactions with police officers is potentially available. It is not hard to imagine a situation in which police officers wearing body cameras enter someone’s home and leave without making an arrest. Footage of that encounter could reveal embarrassing or private information about the homeowner.

In November of last year it was reported that Washington police departments were reviewing their policies related to dash cameras and body cameras in the wake of an increase in requests for footage from the public via public record requests. As the ACLU has pointed out, Washington is one of the states where body camera footage is considered “susceptible to public release upon request.”

At the end of last month, members of the North Dakota House overwhelmingly passed a bill that would exempt police body camera footage of the inside of a private place from a public record request. North Dakota House member Kim Koppelman, who introduced the bill, said that the legislation would protect civilians in situations similar to the one I outlined above. Koppelman reportedly introduced the bill “at the request of West Fargo Police Chief Michael Reitan.” Koppelman and Reitan may be primarily concerned with the privacy of civilians, but a civilian could have a genuine interest in seeing the footage gathered by police officers in her home, especially if she believes that officers damaged property or behaved poorly.

Computer-Aided Reporting: Looking Where the Light Is Good

Upshot (New York Times) writer Derek Willis tweeted this morning, “We need to stop doing stories (and maps) with meaningless data.” At the link, a story on Vox charts the poorest members of Congress. It’s based on a Roll Call story published in September.

His main point, I think, is the failure of the data to reliably reflect what it’s supposed to. The disclosures on which these stories rely don’t include the value of homes members own, for example, and information is reported in broad bands, so it’s probably not very accurate and may be wildly inaccurate.

The data is meaningless in another, more important way. Neither story suggests any correlation between wealth (or its absence) and legislators’ behavior or fitness for office. It’s just a look at who has money and who doesn’t—uninformative infotainment. Maybe some readers stack up inferences to draw conclusions about Congress or its members, but this is probably an exercise in confirming one’s biases.

This illustrates a real problem for computer-aided journalism. When the only data available depicts a certain slice of the world, that will skew editorial judgments toward that slice of the world, overweighting its importance in news reporting and commentary.

In my opinion, reporting on public policy suffers just such a skew. There is relatively good data about campaign financing and campaign spending, which makes it easy to report about. The relatively high level of reporting on this area makes it appear more important while the actual behavior of public officials in office—the bills they sponsor, the contents of bills, amendments, votes, and the results for society—goes relatively unreported.

It won’t be the fix for all that ails reporting on public policy, but our Deepbills project makes essential content of legislation available as data. It vastly expands the territory around U.S. federal public policy that computer-aided jounalists can cover. Deepbills data has been picked up various places, but we need more adoption before it will provide all the value it can to a better-informed public.

Update: On Wednesday, the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee will have a hearing on implementation of the DATA Act, which could yet further expand the data available to journalists, and all of us.

DATA Act Implementation

The administration is working to implement the DATA Act, which, if implemented well, could produce a sea-change in government transparency, and a shift of power from government insiders to the people.

Yesterday, I submitted to the Treasury Department’s Fiscal Service our 2012 “Grading the Government’s Data Publication Practices” study, along with the following comment, which notes the glaring absence of a machine-readable government organization chart.

In partial response to the notice, I’m pleased to submit the attached study, which may assist your inquiry.

Over several years, I have been studying transparency, which remains largely undelivered because it has been undefined.

In “Grading the Government’s Data Publication Practices,” you’ll find the results of that study. Transparency is produced by data that comes from an authoritative source, data that is complete, that is machine-discoverable, and that is machine-readable. When good data publication conditions obtain, the public and government managers alike, through information services, apps, and websites, will make use of the data to make the government more legible.

The study graded the quality of data publication about key entities in the legislative and budgeting/spending processes. The striking upshot was the absence of good data about a very elemental topic: the organizational units of the federal government. There is no machine-readable organization chart for the U.S. federal government. The absence of a machine-readable government organization chart stifles public and congressional oversight, and it frustrates internal management.

Producing machine-readable data that articulates what the organizational units of the federal government are should be a priority. It is probably one of the easier things to do technically, and it will produce important gains in transparency. Failure to produce and maintain a machine-readable federal government organization chart would also stand out if it is not done early on in DATA Act implementation.

We are currently in the process of re-grading data publication in the areas covered by the prior study. In future iterations of the grading study, I look forward to reporting that there is well-organized, complete information about all agencies, bureaus, programs, and projects, and the relationships among them.

Thank you!

Jim Harper

A cynic—and there might be one or two reading this blog!—would say that the government will never make itself transparent. Well, it certainly won’t if you don’t ask it to…

Public Oversight of Congress, One Click at a Time

In mid-August, using Cato Deepbills data, the Legal Information Institute at Cornell University started alerting visitors to its U.S. Code pages that the laws these visitors care about may be amended by Congress.

The most visited bills are an interesting smattering of issues.

Getting top clicks is H.R. 570, the American Heroes COLA Act. Would it surprise you to learn that beneficiaries of Social Security’s Old Age, Survivors and Disability Insurance program are looking to see if veterans’ disability compensation will get the same cost-of-living increases? The relevant section of the Social Security Act on the Cornell site points to the bill that would grow veterans’ benefits in tandem with Social Security recipients’.

S. 1859, the Tax Extenders Act of 2013, is the second bill with the most referrals from Cornell. People looking into federal regulation of health insurance—or myriad other statutes—are finding their way to this complex piece of legislation. We know visitors to the Cornell site are legally sophisticated. They just might be able to follow what S. 1859 does.

Immigration is a hot-button issue, and Deepbills links at Cornell such as the code section dealing with reimbursement for detaining aliens are sending people to S. 744, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act.

Another hot-button issue and top source of clicks from Cornell’s site: federal gun control. People looking at gun control law are following links to Senator Dianne Feinstein’s (D-CA) bill to ban assault weapons.

As of Thursday morning, 674 people had clicked 855 times on links to the bills in Congress that affect the laws they’re interested in. Those numbers aren’t going to instantaneously revive public oversight of the government. But usage of these links is rising, and Tom Bruce at Cornell says he plans changes that may increase clicks by 3 to 5 times. He guesses that people see Cato’s sponsorship of the data they can access 20,000 times a day. (“I should have asked you for a penny per impression ),” he says. Funny guy.)

A lot more people are aware of work Cato is doing to increase government transparency, but, more importantly, a small but growing cadre of people are being made aware of what Congress is doing. This positions them to do something about it. Public oversight of Congress is increasing one click at a time.

Transparency Is Breaking Out All Over!

On Monday, Cato is hosting a briefing on Capitol Hill about congressional Wikipedia editing. Over a recent 90-day period, there were over 400,000 hits on Wikipedia articles about bills pending in Congress. If congressional staff were to contribute more to those articles, the amount of information available to interested members of the public would soar. Data that we produce at Cato go into the “infoboxes” on dozens and dozens of Wikipedia articles about bills in Congress.

A popular Twitter ‘bot called @congressedits recently created a spike in interest about congressional Wikipedia editing. It puts a slight negative spin on the practice because it tracks anonymous edits coming from Hill IP addresses, which are more likely to be inappropriate. But Congress can do a lot of good in this area, so Cato intern Zach Williams built a Twitter ‘bot that shows all edits to articles about pending federal legislation. This should draw attention to the beneficial practice of informing the public before bills become law. Meet @Wikibills!

Also, as of this week, Cato data are helping to inform some 26 million visitors per year to Cornell Law’s Legal Information Institute about what Congress is doing. Thanks to Tom Bruce and Sara Frug for adding some great content to the LII site.

Let’s say you’re interested in 18 U.S. Code § 2516, the part of the U.S. code that authorizes interception of wire, oral, or electronic communications. Searching for it online, you’ll probably reach the Cornell page for that section of the code. In the right column, a box displays “Related bills now in Congress,” linking to relevant bills in Congress.

Those hyperlinks are democratic links, letting people know what Congress is doing, so people can look into it and have their say. Does liberty automatically break out thanks to those developments? No. But public demands of all types—including for liberty and limited government—are frustrated now by the utter obscurity in which Congress acts. We’re lifting the curtain, providing the data that translates into a better informed public, a public better equipped to get what it wants.

The path to liberty goes through transparency, and transparency is breaking out all over!