On Monday, I wrote about the rapidly growing movement to replace the Office of Management and Budget with a different coordinator for standardized publication of government spending data. Why? Because the OMB hasn't been standardizing and publishing data about government spending. That's why.
Yesterday, Kaitlin Lee posted a three-part indictment of the OMB on the Sunlight Foundation blog, called "OMB’s Commitment to Data Quality: Too Little, Too Late." Lee is deeply knowledgeable in this area and extraordinarily patient with the data problems the government throws at her. Credit what you read in her blog post.
(See also the Data Transparency Coalition's rebuttal of OMB controller Danny Werfel, who appears to be guiding the Obama administration toward opposition to spending data transparency.)
The drumbeat for better data is growing louder, it's pan-ideological, and it's non-partisan. Will the OMB preempt the DATA Act by moving forward with real data reforms, or will Congress preempt the OMB's role?
Perhaps my mean grading has contributed to nascent competition between the Republican House and the Democratic administration for the transparency prize. Last Friday, the House Administration Committee adopted standards that "require all House legislative documents be published electronically in an open, searchable format on one centralized website.”
At a September Cato Capitol Hill briefing, I rated Congress on the quality of the data it publishes reflecting its membership, activities, documents, and decisions. Its grades weren't that good. At a briefing last week, I graded the data about federal budgeting, appropriations, and spending, which is largely an executive branch responsibility. Those grades weren't very good either.
Able and dogged transparency advocate Daniel Schuman at the Sunlight Foundation has a good write-up up the House's move to produce good data---he and Sunlight certainly did their part to encourage it---though I'll quibble with one particular. The adoption of the document---a two-page outline of what should be standardized, and not a standards document itself---was not really “a tremendous step into the 21st Century.” It was an outline of a course to improved transparency. 21st-Century transparency.
What is required to produce that transparency? My recent paper “Publication Practices for Transparent Government” sought to establish guideposts for publication of data that will foster public access to meaningful information about what happens in Washington, D.C. The practices, in ascending order of importance and difficulty, are: authority, availability, machine-discoverability, and machine-readability.
Putting all documents on a single site will enhance authority. People will know where to look, and what source to trust. In our rough grading system, we weighted the simple practice of authoritative publishing at 10% of the total grade.
The second practice, availability, means ensuring that the data is complete, that it remains permanently in the same location, that it is not proprietary itself, and that it is not in a proprietary format. This is likely to be fulfilled by adherence to the Committee's language and basic good practices. Availability we weighted at 20% of the total grade.
Machine-discoverability is when data is identified and located consistent with a variety of good practices going to the naming and locating of Internet resources. It's weighted at 30% of the total grade in our system for rating data publication. It is likely that the House will develop good practices, but it will be important to watch and see that it does.
Machine-readability is the most important part of transparency. It means publishing data so that the logical relationships among elements are clear, and so that computers can automatically detect the semantic meaning of the documents and data they examine.
This is where the House Administration Committee's release is least clear. Documents like bills and committee reports could be published so that each reference to existing law, to federal agencies, bureaus, and programs, to newly authorized spending, and to a variety of other items and entities are automatically discoverable in the document.
You should be able to do a quick search, rather than labor for hours, to see what bills affect the Labor Department. You should be able to see every dollar authorized or appropriated in every bill, nearly instantly. The data should be a foundation for dozens of sites and services that disseminate iformation in different ways to different audiences.
Here's hoping that the House Administration Committee's standards drive all the way to machine-readability. It will be a step into the 21st century if the House provides data the Internet can use and that the Internet-connected public very much wants to see.
Coming through with robust machine-readability will handily take the transparency mantle from President Obama, who promised transparency as a campaigner, but who was not produced the vibrant, different government people wanted. As I noted in a write-up last week, the administration has some low-hanging transparency fruit that could bring its grades up decisively. House Republicans are first out of the gate.
That was my inner conversation when I heard that the "Super Congress"* (or "Super Committee") created by the debt ceiling deal might operate behind closed doors.
Congress is free to create any committee it wants, of course. Congress determines the rules of its proceedings. But ordinary committees and subcommittees are too opaque. A "Super Committee" should lead---not lag---in transparent operations.
In a forthcoming report on government transparency, we'll be looking at the kinds of things committees should be publishing in computer-useable formats, and in real time or near-real-time: meeting notices, transcripts, written testimonies, live video, original bills, amendments to bills, motions, and votes. There are ways that many of these documents and records can be optimized for transparency, including by flagging agencies, programs, dollar amounts, and so on in the texts of published documents.
That's why I'm glad to see transparency stalwart the Sunlight Foundation calling for a transparent Super Committee. "Congress pushed through the 'Debt Ceiling' bill with almost no transparency," they say. "Let’s make sure the new 'Super Congress' committee created by this bill operates in the open."
The things they highlight, reflecting priorities of transparency groups across the ideological spectrum, include: live webcasts of all official meetings and hearings; the committee's report being posted for 72 hours before a final committee vote; disclosure of every meeting held with lobbyists and other powerful interests; Web disclosure of campaign contributions as they are received; and financial disclosures of committee members and staffers.
The legislation creating the Super Committee calls for some minimal transparency measures: public announcement of meetings seven days in advance; release of agendas 48 hours ahead of meetings, and:
Upon the approval or disapproval of the joint committee report and legislative language pursuant to clause (ii), the joint committee shall promptly make the full report and legislative language, and a record of the vote, available to the public.
By my read, that's a requirement to release the language the committee is voting upon after the vote has been taken.
I don't see public access to the language of such an important document as conducive to the public overseeing the committee's work. Some may argue that the committee will be pressure-cooker enough if it operates in closed sessions. Delicate political balances require important decisions to be made out of the limelight. This is how massed power in Washington fully manifests itself: major decisions about the direction of the country that people cannot even know about until the decisions are finalized. I'm not havin' it. Kudos, Sunlight Foundation, for pressing an open Super Committee.
*Many are calling the committee "Super Congress." It's a joke I ... don't quite get. So I'll go with "Super Committee."
The Washington Post reports that the White House has reached a tentative agreement with labor leaders to tax high-cost health insurance policies.
What did you think of the negotiations? You did watch them on C-SPAN, didn't you?
At the Sunlight Foundation blog, I've joined in some discussion about whether a president could really force process reforms on Congress like requiring negotiations to be televised. (Short answer: It's possible, not probable.)
But here's a case where the White House declined to put its own negotiations on television as the president promised.
The House health care bill is reportedly coming to the floor this weekend, and House Speaker Pelosi committed in September to a 72-hour delay between the time the bill is posted online and a final vote.
Is that 72-hour delay happening? Some say yes. Some say no.
On the "yes" side are some folks at the Sunlight Foundation. John Wonderlich wrote a post last Sunday called "72 Hours is Now." He hailed the posting of the health care bill well in advance of a vote.
"Public outcry, partisan pressure, and rising expectations are forcing Congress’s hand," he wrote, "and it’s now (apparently) taken as a matter of course that this bill is online for a long weekend before its final consideration."
Paul Blumenthal followed that up mid-week, sounding slightly more cautious notes but hailing the posting of the "final manager's amendment." His post restarted the 72-hour clock.
Which brings us to the folks who say no.
On the Weekly Standard blog, John McCormack says that Speaker Pelosi plans to violate the promise to post the health care bill online for 72 hours.
House members are still negotiating important issues in the bill — whether it will provide taxpayer-funding for abortions, for example. Pelosi is pushing for a Saturday House vote, and a number of big changes will be introduced, likely less than 24 hours before the vote takes place (if in fact it does).
Did Pelosi promise to post a bill? Yes — and she did, when it was pretty near final.
Meanwhile, though, the really tricky details — the stuff that matters to a lot of people — are still being hammered out. The spirit of the 72-hour pledge remains unfulfilled.
And this reveals a weakness in H. Res. 554, the preferred reform of the Sunlight-backed "Read the Bill" effort. It would install a House rule giving bills 72 hours of online airing "before floor consideration."
Floor consideration can and regularly does include the adoption of a "manager's amendment" which can revamp a bill wholesale or add and subtract key details — things that matter.
H. Res. 554 has a loophole you can drive a truck through, and Speaker Pelosi is revving her engines.
This episode is a good, if regrettable, illustration that "self-reform" by a branch of government isn't reliable. "Read the bill" is a good idea, but the genius of President Obama's parallel "Sunlight Before Signing" pledge to hold bills coming out of Congress for five days before signing them is that it is based on interbranch rivalry. Especially, but not only, when there is partisan division between the president and Congress, competition among branches will promote the practice.
(More on "Read the Bill" and "Sunlight Before Signing" here.)
Getting Congress to hold up its own legislation for 72 hours, giving meaningful access to the public of every detail, is asking Congress to be altruistic. And Congress is anything but altruistic.
"When congressmen scoff at the notion of reading legislation because they aren't qualified or they aren't competent to understand it, how can we be confident that those congressman are competent to reengineer the entire health care system?"
So asked a citizen at a town hall meeting where Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius and Senator Arlen Specter (D-PA) held forth before a cantankerous crowd.
It's a fair question. And President Obama offered an answer during his campaign. He promised that he would post bills coming to him from Congress online for five days before signing them. Rather than relying on Congress, the public should have more oversight of it.
(Alas, it's a promise he has violated thirty-nine forty-one times. He signed two more bills into law last week within a day of receiving them.)
Under President Obama's "Sunlight Before Signing" pledge or the 72-hour-hold in Congress preferred by the Sunlight Foundation, members of Congress and senators would be more reticent to introduce potentially controversial amendments, and they would be more obliged to know and defend what is in the bills they vote on.
President Obama set the standard---if not the precedent---by which lawmaking practice will be judged. He will have to rise to that standard as the public has more leisure to take the measure of his presidency. Congress will too.
(It's not the president's Waterloo, of course. I just put that in the title to attract your attention.)