I've got a lot to talk to you all about.
We're in a position to help shape the way the 110th Congress communicates with the internet. I write "we" because I am assembling a package of suggestions and recommendations to help our new congress commune effectively with the internet. I was asked to do this by one of Speaker-to-be Pelosi's staff members.
This isn't a pie-in-the-sky unsolicited suggestion box. Read on if you're unfamiliar with what's going on...
I recently received an email from one of Nancy Pelosi's staff members, asking me to have a discussion with them about my diary on committee transparency, and our Congressional Committees Project.
I was elated, and also somewhat wary. Let me explain what happened here. In the month since I started the Congressional Committees Project, our website (on dkosopedia) has gotten over 6500 hits, and I get a lot more email than I'm used to. I've had concerns about sabotage, but not encountered anything serious. When I got a short note from a staffer for the (soon to be) Speaker of the House, I was a little skeptical.
We talked on Friday night, and now that skepticism is gone. (I've also been able to get independent verification of the staffer's identity.) Over the course of that conversation, I got a better understanding of just how different our new Congress is going to be from the 109th. Two main aspects of our majority have an effect on the things we're trying to accomplish.
First, committees' staff are divvied up based on the proportion of the majority. Having a larger staff will enable the new congress to more effectively perform their usual duties, and hopefully some new ones too.
Specifically, (point number two) the new democratic leadership seems very interested in transparency (in word so far). The big difference between 2006 and 1994 (the last time there was a democratic majority)...
No, not Bush. I feel where you're coming from, but that's not what I'm getting at.
What you're doing right now. The internet. Did the internet exist in 1994? Not really. I had prodigy, but I think that was '96. Look at what we've done lately! Look at how much time you spend on daily kos! How many of you volunteered or contributed for the first time because of this website?
The influence of the netroots growing, and the potential is staggering. I think the netroots is reaching a critical mass; we're starting to self-organize into groups that can distribute work and have a greater impact. I think of it a little like the role economic specialization played in founding societies, but on a smaller level.
Pelosi and her staff seem well aware of the ongoing potential of the internet, and asked me to help start a conversation about what specifically they can do to help make the government more transparent.
Every time I bring this up, I'm faced with tons of comments about giving input to staffers and members of congress. Let me be specific about the kind of information I'm looking for: practical advice about legislative awareness.
Let me tell you a little about what we've been discussing. One of the first things on my list is committee transcripts. I've written about it before, but letso let me get straight to it. We'd like to see committee transcripts available online as soon as possible after the hearings or markup sessions take place. Some committees have been good about this (like the Committee on Government Reform) and some haven't. For reviews on all of them, check here. Obviously live video of all hearings (that aren't kept from being open by Senate of House rules) going straight to a well organized, tagged, unedited archive, would be ideal.
Next, I'd like to cover the availability of bills. We'd love to see bills posted online as early as possible, so that the people who understand the language and policy can have at least a chance to have a say. The democrats seem to be moving in this direction with their "Honest Leadership and Open Government Act," or HR 4682. The relevant section is 504. ReadtheBill.org advocates the passage of stricter standards (HRes 688).
Ok. Next we have the question of formats. If we could have the bills published before they go to a vote, that would be excellent, at least for the hard-core congress watchers. If we could get the information in the bills to be comprehensible, that would be a huge help too. Acheiving that isn't as easy as just demanding it. Legalese is legalese for a reason. Asking for better summaries to be published would be one option. Another solution would be to help websites like govtrack do their jobs better by suggesting a standardized format in which the government could publish information.
Something we've discussed has been XML format, which has tags like HTML, but the tags are eXtensible, which means you can control them. The upshot of that is that outside websites (like govtrack) can automatically populate themselves with information from the bills, to allow for better reference and searching. If you're an EXPERT on XML, I'd love to hear from you.
This is just some of what we've been talking about on our yahoogroup. I'd like to say also that there are some very very smart people helping me out with this, and that the collaborative circle assisting with this project and helping to extend its reach is growing very quickly.
You input is appreciated. Some things are more likely to happen (such as the committee website designers hearing our pleas and taking them into consideration, or getting a government RSS feed about newly published bills or transcripts) and some are less likely to happen.
In any case, your suggestions are appreciated. Your interest in the project also has an effect, even if you're not a tech wiz or a congress junkie. Seeing the community care about transparency gives our leaders a greater incentive to try to enact changes in how we can perceive our government. It also gives them some good arguing points when they try to convince the staffers to design better webpages.
Thanks to everyone that has helped this project so far, and I look forward to your comments.