My visit to ClosedCongress

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North Door

Regular OpenCongress users know that we lag a bit (about 24 hours) behind THOMAS, the official site of the Library of Congress, when we put bill information and roll call votes on OpenCongress. This is a result of several factors, but put simply, we have to wait for the information to be online before our servers can collect it for publication. For the vast majority of users, this system works: Congress usually moves so slowly that waiting 24 hours to read the bill text or review a roll-call vote is not much of a problem.

We do run into trouble, however, when legislation being debated in Congress is not made available online.

On Friday, my colleague John Wonderlich and I made a field trip to Capitol Hill. Our destination: the House Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch. Our goal: pick up a copy of the FY 2010 Legislative Branch Appropriations Bill (and an accompanying committee report), which had been marked up that morning.

The U.S. Federal Budget is comprised of 13 major pieces of legislation. The first is a resolution approved by the House and Senate, which serves as a blueprint for Congress as it debates the budget. The remaining twelve appropriations bills fund a specific department or group of departments (for more on the budget process, check out this introduction by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities).

The Legislative Branch Appropriations Bill is the one that funds Congress: it provides money for lawmakers’ salaries and those of their staff; funding for the Government Printing Office, Library of Congress, and Congressional Budget Office; and funds to operate the U.S. Capitol and maintain the Capitol Grounds. This year, according to a release issued by Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the subcommittee is recommending $3.68 billion in the bill, “an increase of $237 million over the level provided for 2009.”

Moving forward, we can expect greater transparency from Congress in regard to its expenditures. Wonderlich highlighted this a couple of weeks ago on the Sunlight Foundation Blog, discussing new requirements in the House to file online disclosures of expense reports. In addition, the Legislative Branch Appropriations Bill will likely be available on THOMAS this afternoon (and OpenCongress tomorrow). That said, if you knew what you were doing and you lived in Washington D.C., you could get a copy three days before anybody else.

Finally, since I went through all the trouble of going to pick it up, I thought I would share some highlights from the committee report that I found interesting:

  • A slight call out of the Congressional Budget Office: “The CBO plays a critical role in support of Congress through its production of cost estimates. The timely production of these estimates and scorekeeping reports is essential if Congress is to move forward on its legislative agenda. The Committee notes that it has increased CBO’s FTE level by 10 percent since FY 2007. It expects CBO to use these additional funds to continue to improve the speed at which it produces cost estimates for Congress.”
  • Is the House running out of room? “There are currently significant limitations on the amount of space available for Members, committees and staff to do their work. Given the size of this project, it is an appropriate time to consider the steps that might be taken to address the House of Representatives’ long-term space needs.”
  • Finally, a disconnect between lawmakers and the Congressional Research Service: “Its staff provides high quality research to Members and Committees and functions in many cases essentially as extensions of the legislative staff of the House and Senate. Notwithstanding this record of accomplishment, the Committee is concerned that the CRS, partially because of the increased use of electronic communications and the adoption of new staff structures, may have become less connected to Committees and Member Offices it serves.”

Cross posted at OpenCongress.

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