What Congress does is supposed to be public, right? And it shouldn’t be hard to get information about those activities, right?
Not everybody in Congress thinks that's a very good idea.
You can look up bills pending in Congress on the THOMAS site -- named for Thomas Jefferson -- that is run by the Library of Congress. You go to the THOMAS web site and put in your search terms, and it gives you a list of all the bills that include that phrase.
THOMAS is a bit clunky, yes, but it's the only way our national legislature has deigned to give us such information through the InterTubes, so we're stuck with it for now.
But if you know anything about our federal government, you know that if you if really want to see what Congress is up to, looking at one bill at a time often won't tell you much. You often need to review multiple bills, or hundreds of bills, such as all the legislation filed by a certain senator or dealing with a certain issue.
For instance, if you really want to see what kind of oddball stuff members of Congress are trying to get exempted from import tariffs this year, like my colleague Mark Flatten recently did, you'll have to look at more than 2,000 bills.
A web interface that lets us call up and download one bill at a time was really innovative once -- say, 15 years ago. But that won't cut it anymore.
Folks with computers -- notably, professional and citizen journalists -- would be able to take information about massive numbers of bills and analyze them in myriad ways -- if Congress would allow such information to be downloaded from THOMAS in bulk.
It won't. And, according to a new draft report from the House Appropriations Committee, it won't be allowing bulk data downloads from THOMAS anytime soon.
Instead of taking a step towards greater transparency, the committee got hung up on whether people would know if the data they're seeing on the Internet were accurate and really from Congress -- "authentication," they call it.
The draft report “represents a tremendous step backward for transparency, and fails to seriously grapple with the history of efforts to free legislative information for widespread public use,” two staffers at the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation wrote.
After having parsed some of Flatten's list of tariff bills, the last thing Congress needs to worry about is being embarrassed by someone making up crazy bills and fraudulently passing them off as the real thing. The real bills are crazy enough.
Senate Bill 2890, titled "A bill to extend the temporary suspension of duty on pepperoncini, prepared or preserved otherwise than by vinegar or acetic acid, not frozen," is indeed a real piece of legislation pending before the U.S. Congress.
So is Senate Bill 2891, "A bill to extend temporary reduction of duty on pepperoncini, prepared or preserved by vinegar."
Vinegar or no vinegar, Congress has left transparency advocates in a sour mood.
Jennifer Peebles is The Washington Examiner’s data editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.