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Sunlight Foundation
Washington, DC

The Sunlight Foundation uses technology and ideas to make government transparent and accountable.

The Sunlight Foundation is:

A think-tank that develops and encourages new policies inside the government to make it more open and transparent.
A campaign to engage citizens in demanding the policies that will open government and hold their elected officials accountable for being transparent.
An investigative organization that uses the data we uncover to demonstrate why we need new policies that free government data.
A grant-giving institution that provides resources to organizations using technology to further our mission and create community
An open source technology community that revolves around the Sunlight Foundation’s core mission

Sunlight Foundation is not verified as a 501(c)3 organization.

Latest News

Jun 27, 2016

Sen. Tom Udall speaking at a podium outside.
Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., along with his Democratic colleages, introduced a new set of campaign finance reforms — yet they have little chance of passing. (Photo credit: Senate Democrats/Flickr)

Senate Democrats, led by Tom Udall, N.M., and Jeff Merkley, Ore., have introduced a package of campaign finance and lobbying reforms, labeled the We The People Act.  

Though unlikely to pass this current Congress, here's a look at each proposal what these policies would mean for a more transparent and accountable government.

Exposing “dark money” through greater disclosure

This provision, introduced by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., would require organizations spending money in elections to disclose their largest donors. Known as the “DISCLOSE Act,” the proposal would require these entities, including super PACs and 501(c)(4) nonprofits, to report those contributors that gave $10,000 or more during an election cycle. Candidate and party committees are not covered. Organizations would also have to report money that was transferred to other entities with the intention of being spent on campaigns.  

The Sunlight Foundation has supported the DISCLOSE Act since it was first introduced in 2010.

Bring “real-time” transparency to campaign contributions

Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, has proposed requiring federal candidates to report contributions of $1,000 to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) within 48 hours. The Sunlight Foundation has long supported real-time transparency. Currently, campaigns may take as long as three months to notify the FEC about contributions. Since Senate candidates are not required to file electronically, their information can take even longer to become public. These delays mean that voters must often go to the polls without knowing who has financially supported the candidates.

Reform the Federal Election Commission

Udall has proposed replacing the FEC with an independent elections agency, the Federal Elections Administration. The new entity would consist of five commissioners appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. It would receive more enforcement and investigation powers. In recent years, the FEC has nearly ground to a halt because of partisan deadlock. (For example, the commission was unable to investigate a case where a coal company owner was accused of coercing employees to make campaign contributions). And last year, the FEC issued the lowest amount of penalties for campaign finance violations since the current system began in 2001. This prevents the FEC from enforcing existing law, and from adapting to changes in the campaign finance landscape. The Sunlight Foundation has long supported measures to make the FEC a more effective body. Ultimately, a stronger FEC could resolve a lot of other issues, including disclosure of LLC spending as well as dark money. Even broader and more robust enforcement of the coordination rule which is supposed to keep super PACs independent from campaigns.

Rein in super PACs

Speaking of the coordination rule, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., is offering a multi-item proposal that would greatly restrict single-candidate super PACs. Rules banning coordination between candidates and super PACs would be tightened. Leahy’s proposal would end the “firewall” that allows groups that are coordinating with a candidate to set up an internal unit that can spend independently. It would forbid candidates or their agents from establishing super PACs. Super PACs could not be directed by advisors or consultants of candidates, nor could they retain people who have provided professional services to candidates. Candidates or their agents could not raise funds for the super PAC. This provision would reinstate meaningful campaign contribution limits by keeping candidates from using super PACs to solicit unlimited sums from donors.

Expand registration requirements for lobbyists

Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., has proposed requiring lobbyists to register if they make two or more lobbying contacts for a client over a two-year period, even if the lobbyist does not spend 20 percent of his or her time serving the particular client. The Sunlight Foundation has long been concerned with the problem of “shadow lobbying” – lobbying by people who do not register under federal law. Some estimates suggest there are about 10,000 “shadow lobbyists” in Washington.

Paid influencers avoid disclosure by choosing not to register — this allows them to avoid being covered by the 2007 law that banned lobbyists from making gifts to politicians and subjected them to additional campaign finance disclosure. They may wish also avoid registering in order to circumvent the Obama administration’s executive order restricting the hiring of lobbyists for executive-branch positions. Given that the Lobbying Disclosure Act has rarely been enforced, “shadow lobbyists” may see little incentive to register. But when lobbyists evade disclosure, citizens lose out, since they lack the information necessary to know who is trying to influence our government.

Permanent ban on lobbying by former members of Congress

Bennet has also proposed forbidding House and Senate members from lobbying Congress for the duration of their lives after they leave office. Currently, senators have a two-year ban, while representatives have one year. This proposal has a more potential pitfalls. A lifetime ban might threaten the First Amendment’s protection of the right to “petition for a redress of grievances.” It also might increase the numbers of “shadow lobbyists.”  

Enhance “revolving door” restrictions  

Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., has proposed forbidding private employers from giving bonuses to their employees when they leave to enter government service. The bill would also increase “cool-down periods" for those leaving the federal government, and would expand recusal requirements for those in office. It would expand the prohibition on federal examiners from accepting employment with any financial institutions they oversaw from one year to two years.

Some have argued that this would reduce the federal government’s reliance on those who have worked in the industries that they would regulate in office. It could also make it less likely that former government officials use their government connections to benefit their new employers. Skeptics warn that this proposal might make it more difficult to attract talented and experienced people to government service.  

Amend the U.S. Constitution to allow greater campaign finance regulation

Proposed by Udall, this amendment would overturn aspects of Buckley v. Valeo and Citizens United v. FEC by allowing both federal and state governments to set “reasonable” limits on campaign spending and contributions. It would specifically allow regulations to be based on concerns about political equality, which the Supreme Court has repeatedly rejected as a justification for limits on campaign contributions. The amendment would also specifically allow both federal and state governments to forbid corporations from spending money in elections. Constitutional amendments face a challenging path to adoption, needing two-thirds majorities in both houses of Congress, followed by approval by three-quarters of the states, many of which are under Republican control.

There are other means to enhance disclosure, many of which are included in the package. Skeptics of the amendment warn that by allowing only “reasonable” restrictions, it opens itself to widely varying interpretations by the courts. Given that the next president should be able to name at least one and probably more members of the Supreme Court, it is possible that Citizens United could be overturned or modified in the near future.


So, will this package even get a vote? Unlikely, as it is largely a tool for messaging by Democrats in highly politicized Congress. However, some of these proposals are serious and have merit; Sunlight will remain focused on these other proposals from Congress that boost transparency and accountability in our campaign finance system.  

Jun 24, 2016

A redacted FOIA request.
A heavily redacted FOIA request. (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

When Sunlight signed onto the 50 Days of FOIA campaign, we expected to be adding our voice and ideas to those of dozens of other open government allies pushing for Congress to pass legislative reforms to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Thankfully, we are now celebrating Congress sending FOIA reform to President Barack Obama. S.337 is currently listed as pending legislation on the White House website. We hope the president signs it into law by or on the 50th anniversary of the law on July Fourth.

The bill that Congress ultimately passed is neither as strong nor as flawed as it could have been, but it’s an evolutionary improvement in the statute that should improve a system that many journalists and members of Congress view as fundamentally broken.

Reforming FOIA now, however, was crucial to ensure that the initiatives that the Obama administration has advanced over the years become the default disclosure policy of the country, not to be erased by the stroke of the next president's pen. When the president signs it, as the White House said he would, the legislation will strengthen the role of the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) at the National Archives, which is entrusted with providing mediation services to FOIA requesters.

The bill will also codify the "presumption of openness" into law that the Obama administration supported but far too frequently failed to implement in action. When a judge considers a FOIA lawsuit, he or she will have to decide whether a given agency honored that principle.

There are other valuable reforms in the bill that will improve how FOIA is managed and implemented. Agencies must now make data and documents available in digital form. Documents that are requested three or more times must be published. Exemption 5, which applies to deliberative processes, is limited to documents less than 25 years old. There will now be a Chief FOIA Officers Council charged with improving compliance, similar to the way the Chief Information Officers Council is entrusted with improving the government’s use of technology.

Even if the Obama administration has not lived up to the standard set in rhetoric, the next White House will have to do so. Here’s a some ideas to improve FOIA that don’t require more legislation, along with some that probably will.

Ask requestors for feedback

Total number of FOIA requests received
Total number of FOIA requests received. (Image credit: Justice Department)
While the Justice Department’s statistics claim a historic high in the total number of FOIA requests processed, the data doesn’t capture the quality of the responses nor the satisfaction of the requestor with what he or she receives. We encourage the Justice Department’s Office of Information Policy (OIP) and agencies to request and publish data from requestors about the process, from how timely and responsive agencies were to the documents themselves. As more data on requestor experience is created and analyzed, Congress, OGIS and OIP will have more insight into which agencies or agency components need assistance.

Post contact information

The House FOIA reform bill would have mandated that agencies enable the public to submit FOIA requests over email. We hope that at least one agency will experiment with doing so. In the meantime, every single FOIA office should make sure that they post FOIA officer names, phone numbers and email addresses for requestors to follow up on requests.

Pick up the phone

According to OGIS, the number one cause for lawsuits is agencies simply not responding to requestors. There’s a simple solution to that insight: Make sure that every FOIA request is acknowledged by phone or email immediately, even if the documents or data is not immediately provided. Members of the media, the public or companies are exercising a right mandated by Congress and should be treated with respect.

Increase funding for FOIA staff

Number of Full-Time FOIA Staff Across the U.S. Government
Number of Full-Time FOIA Staff Across the U.S. Government. (Image credit: Justice Department)
Unfortunately, as we and our allies have noted before, the bill does not provide additional funding for hiring more FOIA officers at agencies. That’s a problem: According to the 2015 annual report on FOIA published by OIP, while full-time staffing has rebounded from 3,838 full-time FOIA staff in 2014 to 4,121, 27 agencies report having fewer than one full-time FOIA staffer.

Make better FOIA software

Number of backlogged FOIA requests
Number of backlogged FOIA requests. (Image credit: Justice Department)
Increased funding isn’t enough, though. After all, the U.S. government spent $461 million dollars on FOIA in the 2014 fiscal year, while the backlog grew 67 percent. The U.S. government spent $448,961,678 processing requests in 2015, while the backlog fell.

As the White House Office of Management and Budget considers how to revive the FOIA request portal mandated by the bill, it should ensure that the nation doesn’t just settle for existing commercial options but invests significant resources in making open.foia.gov into a global model for software that helps both requestors and FOIA officers.

The U.S. Digital Service and 18F have brought much-needed design principles focused upon user needs into government. The Justice Department now has digital service staff. The Obama administration and the next administration should demonstrate a shared commitment to honoring the nation’s open government law in the 21st century by building FOIA software with the people who make requests and process them. Oakland’s RecordTrac is a useful model for improving the FOIA process. The national success of PostCode’s NextRequest, which built upon that code, is worth studying and scaling.

One approach that the White House and Justice Department could also consider is building a platform that would enable people to use apps and services developed by private sector entrepreneurs to make requests.

Train FOIA officers

Simple, intuitive software that makes the work of tracking, processing and disclosing requests will make the job of FOIA officers easier. That doesn’t absolve agencies from ensuring that everyone is using that software, which means that training has to be mandatory. If OIP finds that a given agency isn’t training its staff, it shouldn’t just share that fact in a report: Justice needs to proactively lead.

Open the data, proactively disclose it

There’s no doubt that improved FOIA software and proactive disclosure of frequently requested records and data online should slow or even reverse the rising tide of inbound requests. If Congress and the next administration wants to see positive progress, every agency will need to focus on proactively disclosing records and improving the capacity of agencies to respond. Given research showing how commercial entities are dominating the landscape of FOIA requests for some agencies, focusing on disclosing the data sets they request will unlock the desired economic outcomes the Obama administration has frequently touted and reduce the load on FOIA officers.

This would be significantly aided by improving the internal knowledge management practices of agencies, particularly with respect to completing and maintaining the enterprise data inventories mandated by President Obama’s 2013 Executive Order and ensuring that data is born open from the beginning.

While human discretion under the FOIA will continue to be both helpful and a hindrance for FOIA requests, no one should be told that records cannot be found, much less do not exist. While it’s inevitable that agencies involved in national security will neither confirm nor deny the existence of records, we hope to see the frequency of response diminish with further digitization.

Your ideas?

If you have specific suggestions for this administration or the next about how agencies handle FOIA that build or add to this list, please add them in the comments or let us know over email. If we heard from you, we’ll add a follow-up post and share them.

Jun 24, 2016

This map of "Declared Dangerous Dogs" is one of the most popular datasets in Austin, Texas. (Image credit: Data.AustinTexas.gov)

Cities collect tons of data. Open Baltimore reveals 1,847 dataset files; the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center notes 132,187 car accident reports; and on top of displaying large tables with interactive charts, the city of Mesa, Ariz., even makes a point of linking to the data that noncity agencies collect.

With so much data to compile, sort, and process, the U.S. City Open Data Census — an initiative that Sunlight is now revamping — looks at how well cities make some of their most important datasets accessible to the public. Open data isn’t just data that’s posted online — the census also notes if datasets are free, openly licensed, easy to download, accessible without restrictions and up to date, criteria that are linked to Sunlight’s open data policy guidelines. While many cities have made progress in recent years by creating open data portals, releasing comprehensive local maps and digitizing city archives, the City Open Data Census has seen a handful of cities consistently rise to the top. What about those cities makes them do well in the census? How did they ensure that their data are open and easily accessible to their communities?

Not all cities that release their data online have policies to govern open data access. However, the cities that do best in making their data open (as measured by the census) all have strong policies underlying their open data programs. Las Vegas is a case in point: Data Las Vegas earns the city top marks for a wide range of the datasets checked by the census, from budget information to data on parcels and permits. But Las Vegas’ data accessibility is rooted in its clear, strong policies. In 2014, “convenient, modifiable, and open formats” were written into the city’s code, and earlier this year the city added an assurance that data will be “placed into the public domain … [with] no restrictions or requirements placed on use.” Notably, the Las Vegas policy also calls for publishing any data created by private contractors on the city’s behalf.

Austin is a further example of both strong open data policy and practice. The Open Data Census gives Austin a nearly perfect record on its data accessibility, but beneath that accessibility is strong policy language that guides Austin’s open data sites. Austin’s policy guarantees that “[t]he City shall not assert any copyright, patent, trademark, or other restriction on government information”; Austin’s publicly-accessible data, in turn, “shall be updated … as often as necessary.” One can almost feel the enthusiasm of Austin’s desire for its data to be “retrieved, downloaded, indexed, sorted, searched, and reused.”

Still, Austin’s policy doesn’t let the city’s open data team rest on their laurels. Instead, the policy requires the city to investigate new data technologies and get feedback from the public, continually strengthening Austin’s open data program. Perhaps as a result, Austin’s open data effort is easy to navigate, visually appealing, innovatively used and staggeringly comprehensive — with data on everything from potholes and floodplains to Achilles the cat.

The open data policies and practices of Austin and Las Vegas could still be improved. Austin could reinforce its policy by requiring public application programming interfaces (APIs), which help third parties automatically gather data from government sites. Although both cities generally do well at providing data in bulk, their policies could be further strengthened by specifically requiring the cities to provide bulk data downloads. Another easy improvement could be adding guidelines for how to cite city datasets.

Both cities do well, but both are also big. In our second post, we’ll soon look at how municipalities with smaller populations can still succeed in making data open and accessible.

Jun 23, 2016

PROGRESS: Building on a decade of reforms to legislative data disclosure, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan committed to making more of the law transparent online. Congressional administrative staff are now moving forward with making enrolled bills, public laws and statutes at large machine-readable. They've committed to do so retroactively as well, going back to previous sessions of Congress. With time and sufficient resources, digitization might even go back to the 18th century someday! That means more of the legislation and deliberative processes around its creation will be more easily searched, analyzed and visualized. Making the law machine-readable means that different versions of bills can be compared. Opening legislation enables the public to use third-party tools to see how and where the language from model legislation was adopted, or staff to see which parts of the U.S. Code a bill would change. If Congress implements this well, it will improve not only how laws are made, but the public’s understanding and awareness of how government works.

WATERSHED: Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and the Republican leadership were criticized yesterday for shutting down the video feed to C-SPAN during a sit-in by House Democrats over a vote on proposed gun control legislation. As Sunlight's Melissa Yeager noted on the blog, while the move was neither unprecedented nor C-SPAN's decision, it was a troubling decision for transparency. Selective transparency is not open government.

What was unprecedented was what happened next: Members of Congress used smartphones to livestream their protest on the House floor using Twitter, Periscope and Facebook Live, enabling the public to see and hear what was happening — and then C-SPAN picked up those feeds. If you've been online today or picked up a newspaper, you've no doubt heard about this, as dozens of media outlets reported how social media companies were suddenly connecting the public to what was happening in Congress.

While aspects of the past 24 hours may have felt chaotic or looked undignified to some observers — and the sit-in was ultimately ineffective, in terms of forcing a vote on any legislative measures before Congress adjourned for the July Fourth holiday — this is what the present of government transparency looks like. [READ MORE]

National

Outside spending in 2016 Democratic primary
  • Sunlight's Josh Stewart followed the money behind the nearly $500 million spent in the 2016 Democratic primary. [Sunlight Foundation]
  • The Senate narrowly rejected a controversial online surveillance bill. [The Intercept]
  • Government Executive considered whether reports from the Congressional Research Service should be kept secret. The answer is definitely NO. [GovExec]
  • Margaret Sullivan wrote about a panel on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) at the 2016 Conference in The Washington Post. In the column, she notes the recent passage of FOIA reform and expresses hope that it's a big deal. We hope so: The reform that Congress ultimately passed is neither as strong nor as flawed as it could have been. When the president signs it, as the White House said be would, the new law will strengthen the role of the federal FOIA ombudsman and codify the "presumption of openness" into law that the Obama administration supported in writing but far too frequently failed to implement in action. Reforming FOIA now was crucial to ensure that the initiatives that Obama administration has advanced over the years become the default disclosure policy of the country, not to be erased by the stroke of the next president's pen. The bill has now been submitted to the president, who may well decide to sign it on Independence Day. [Washington Post]
  • Speaking of FOIA, ProPublica is helping journalists do accountability reporting on the Red Cross. [Nieman Lab]
  • And speaking of FOIA, recently released documents show that the State Department did give former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton an official email address, [email protected], contradicting what officials have said, and that it went unusued after a former aide noted that it would be "subject to [Freedom of Information Act] searches." [Washington Examiner]
  • In other campaign news, Clinton tapping a donor for a national security board has raised some eyebrows around Washington and beyond. As Sunlight's John Wonderlich observed, it's hard to believe that financial ties didn't play a role in the appointment. [Vox]
  • Maybe foreign political money shouldn't be in U.S. elections? [Boston Globe]
  • The Beeck Center announced that it would be publishing a roadmap for the next administration. [Georgetown]
  • Now that presidential candidate Marco Rubio has stated he will run for re-election to his U.S. Senate seat, Sunlight's Ben Berliner took at look the money being spent in Florida. [Sunlight]
  • Anthony Foxx, the secretary of the Department of Transportation, announced that Columbus, Ohio, is the winner of the Smart City Challenge. [Gizmodo]

State and Local

  • Victory! California has dropped its proposal to copyright government works. [EFF]
  • FiveThirtyEight journalist Dhurmil Mehta talked with the Harvard Ash Center, concluding by saying that "making data available and accessible to journalists and citizens is vitally important to the health of democracy." We couldn't agree more. [Harvard Ash]
  • Mother Jones published an in-depth report on how a private prison system in America is operated. [Mother Jones]
  • Mississippi lawmakers have introduced the most "model policy" bills from ALEC in the United States since 2010, according to a "Data Science for Social Good" project from the University of Chicago. [Jackson Free Press]
  • Transparency advocates in New York are opposing reworking the state's Freedom of Information Laws. [IBTimes]
  • The LA Daily News editorial board is not impressed with the California legislature's proposed open government reforms. [Daily News]
  • In the latest breach, 154 million voter records were leaked online. Long past time for state attorneys general and legislatures to look seriously at voter data and privacy. [DailyDot]

International

  • While the outcome of the public referendum on the United Kingdom staying in the European Union still isn't clear, one thing is: U.S. financial institutions are spending millions against a "Brexit." [Sunlight]
  • A German court ruled that digitizing paintings in the public domain creates a new copyright. [ArsTechnica]
  • In a new report, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development said Mexico only publishing open data is not sufficient for improving governance. “Building user communities around open data is one of the main challenges for the Mexican government, but it is essential for achieving real economic, social and governance benefits and for fully exploiting the value of open data for specific policy sectors.” [Public Finance International]
  • David Eaves reviewed the good and not-so-good aspects of Canada's new national plan for open government. Weigh in here. [eaves.ca]
  • Speaking of open government, Tanzania is still working on it. The good news: the country has introduced an access to information law in Parliament. The bad news: Tanzanians are being sentenced to prison for criticizing the president on social media. [Quartz]
  • Ethan Zuckerman wrote a must-read post on how to build sociotechnological systems that aren't awful. "The temptation of technology is that it promises fast and neat solutions to social problems, but usually fails to deliver," he wrote. "The problem with Morozov’s critique is that technological solutions, combined with other paths to change, can sometimes turn intractable problems into solvable ones. The key is to understand technology’s role as a lever of change in conjunction with complementary levers." [Medium]
  • Sweden has created an unusual project in honor of the 250th anniversary of its freedom of information law: if you call +46 771 793 336, you'll be connected to a random Swede. [The Swedish Number]

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We want to find and share the most important stories about open government around the world from the past 24 hours here. To do that, we'll need YOUR help. Please send your tips and feedback at [email protected]. If you would like suggest an event, email us by 7 am on the Monday prior to the event.

Jun 23, 2016

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and the Republican leadership were criticized yesterday for shutting down the video feed to C-SPAN during a sit-in by House Democrats over a vote on proposed gun control legislation. As Sunlight's Melissa Yeager noted on the blog, while the move was neither unprecedented nor C-SPAN's decision, it was a troubling decision for transparency. Selective transparency is not open government.

What was unprecedented was what happened next: Members of Congress used smartphones to livestream their protest on the House floor using Twitter, Periscope and Facebook Live, enabling the public to see and hear what was happening — and then C-SPAN picked up those feeds. If you've been online today or picked up a newspaper, you've no doubt heard about this, as dozens of media outlets reported how social media companies were suddenly connecting the public to what was happening in Congress.

Broadly speaking, that's a good thing: The public should be able to see what's happening on the floor of Congress on C-SPAN, whether the House is in session or lawmakers are engaging in civil disobedience against House rules. We've now seen how 21st-century technology could be used to route around a 20th-century policy in an 18th-century institution. How the past 24 hours will change Congress remains to be seen, but it's fair to say that June 22, 2016, was a tipping point for how legislators could personally use consumer technology to directly inform the public. 

While aspects of the past 24 hours may have felt chaotic or looked undignified to some observers — and the sit-in was ultimately ineffective, in terms of forcing a vote on any legislative measures before Congress adjourned for the July Fourth holiday — this is what the present of government transparency looks like.

It's also what participatory democracy now looks like: mediated and mingled through smartphone screens, social networks and apps, uploaded and distributed over wireless networks and cell towers instead of television stations and radio networks.

That doesn't mean that the public should have to settle for members of Congress using their cellphones. We can and should build something better, together.

Webcams installed in both houses of Congress broadcasting live feeds to the world over fiber connections that are not subject to partisan control would make sense. So would a shift in Congress' own rules for credentialed media and the public sitting in the galleries.

Historic changes come in fits and spurts. Sometimes they are catalyzed by changes in law or court rulings. Sometimes wars and natural disasters galvanize action. Today, rapid advances in technology and mass adoption of social media for news and political purposes have created the opportunity, context and demand for something more than a couple of official video feeds broadcast to C-SPAN's channels and website.

Congress should learn from what happened last night and rethink how its rules should change with the times, just as every other institution has.

Jun 22, 2016

Two men in Congress on a Periscope feed as C-SPAN cameras were turned off.
Crawl on the bottom of C-SPAN notifying viewers cameras in House were turned off during the June 22 Democratic sit-in. (Image credit: C-SPAN/Twitter)

When word spread that Democrats were staging a sit-in on the floor of the House of Representatives over a vote on gun legislation, like many Americans, Sunlight staff turned C-SPAN, one of the most reliable sources of nonpartisan information about government, to see what was happening.

When we tuned in, however, we found the national public affairs network was running a crawl that the cameras in the House had been turned off by the majority party of the House.

Here’s how it works: C-SPAN does not own or operate any of the cameras, it simply broadcasts the “feed” of events. The House recording studio owns and operates the cameras, meaning it controls the video, the audio and the camera angles. C-SPAN simply takes that video feed and broadcasts it. “Independent, non-government TV cameras (are) not allowed to broadcast regular floor proceedings (neither House nor Senate),” C-SPAN Communications Director Howard Mortman told us in an email.

Mortman also wrote that C-SPAN has a lengthy history of asking for greater access. You can read the organization’s letters on its website, which show they have been asking to install cameras since 1994.

This conflict of interest in who controls the cameras seems to be an ongoing problem. Today, that decision was made by Republicans, but in 2008, then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi took the same action during a debate on an energy bill. Both of these instances are cause for concern.

Selective transparency in broadcasting action on the floor contradicts the constitutional principles that House Speaker Paul Ryan recently published and embraced. Americans on both sides of these issues have a vested interest in seeing which House members were taking part, what was playing out on the House floor, and being informed about the content of the debate over how the Second Amendment should be interpreted.

Representative democracy only works when people can see how their government is conducting business and, in turn, hold politicians accountable for those actions. C-SPAN’s camera coverage is a valuable tool in that process.

In an age of limited resources, there are many organizations and news outlets that depend on that livestream of events. At any time, you can tune in and see what is going on in American government as it is happening. The live broadcast allows you to watch events as they unfold, consider the information and make your own opinions about what is happening, free from cable news pundits talking over speeches on the floor and cutting away from the debate. You can go back in C-SPAN’s archives and see exactly what people said and in what context they said it. You can see how your representatives act and vote in real time.

C-SPAN is offered as a public service, and is perhaps one of our finest areas of transparency.

Shutting off the cameras sends a terrible message to other countries with new, struggling democracies that you cannot trust your people to evaluate the actions of their government. Instead, it shows that even in the Land of the Free, censorship is utilized to minimize the voice of the opposition.

While some lawmakers are using social media and livestreaming apps on their smartphones to route around the shutdown, demonstrating how technology has leapfrogged the single point of control of the “official feed,” the structural issue of political control of the cameras remains.

In an unprecedented move, C-SPAN switched to the Periscope feed of a congressman this afternoon, and then to a Facebook Live feed of another. The fact that advances in technology enable members of Congress to route around censorship of the House floor, however, does not mitigate the decision to shut down the C-SPAN cameras.

Some lawmakers ignored the “independent camera” rule — which bans using devices for still photography, audio or video recording — and started broadcasting via Periscope. C-SPAN switched to a Periscope feed this afternoon:

It is troubling that the cameras were not turned back on when it was clear this was something the American public would have an interest in observing. If you agree, we encourage you to use our tool Email Congress to let your lawmakers know.

Jun 22, 2016

House Speaker Paul Ryan at LDTC 2016. (Photo credit: Alex Howard/Sunlight Foundation)

Yesterday at the 2016 Legislative Data and Transparency Conference, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan stood up and congratulated all of the people who have been working to open up the legislative branch of the United States to the public. Ryan also told us — and the online and television viewers — that he'd asked his team to keep moving ahead by publishing all legislative measures in a standard format.

The meaning behind these words may not be immediately obvious to the public. Here’s what’s happening: Congressional administrative staff are now moving forward with making enrolled bills, public laws and statutes at large machine-readable. They've committed to do so retroactively as well, going back to previous sessions of Congress. With time and sufficient resources, digitization might even go back to the 18th century someday! That means more of the legislation and deliberative processes around its creation will be more easily searched, analyzed and visualized. Making the law machine-readable means that different versions of bills can be compared. Opening legislation enables the public to use third-party tools to see how and where the language from model legislation was adopted, or staff to see which parts of the U.S. Code a bill would change. If Congress implements this well, it will improve not only how laws are made, but the public’s understanding and awareness of how government works.

The symbolism and importance of the Speaker of the House endorsing open government and standardized legislative data this forcefully and publicly is a phenomenal endorsement of the dedicated work of people inside and outside of government to improve it over the years. It was an honor to have been present when he did so.

While Ryan’s address was the high point of the day, there were many other important initiatives and ideas presented on stage or shared by conference attendees, building upon a decade of meaningful progress. The public should know that on this count, government is working for them and increasing access to not only the text of bills and laws themselves, but the processes by which they are formed. In a 21st-century democracy, that is both right and appropriate. Public awareness of that dedication is sorely needed in a time when trust in government institutions is at a historic low.

The ongoing challenge at LDTC 2016. (Photo credit: Alex Howard/Sunlight Foundation)

There are several initiatives that merit special notice.

One is the democratic process surrounding improving the way legislative data is being made more available and accessible to the public. The conference began with administrative staff presenting on the progress of the Congressional Bulk Data Task Force. In their remarks and the ensuing question period, the staff addressed issues that have been raised about that data on GitHub, the social programming platform that has rapidly become not only the key hub for open source software in government but a forum for public comment on government regulatory or policy proposals. This explicit connection between civil society and the government institution around the shared goal of informing the public about the legislative process and outcomes, using data to engage the public in the democratic process, is laudable and should be a model for all of the states.

Mapping tools demonstrated at LDTC 2016. (Photo credit: Alex Howard/Sunlight Foundation)

Second is the use of open government data from federal agencies in the legislative process. The conference saw demonstrations of mapping tools that enable legislators and their staff to understand more about the impact of spending, environmental issues and much more. These maps are possible because data has been standardized and published in such a way that powerful tools can be deployed to improve the insight of our elected representatives. Enhancing congressional capacity to make better law an important aspect of opening data that should not be overlooked. Unfortunately, some of the best maps the conference saw were demonstrated by the Congressional Research Service – and the public still does not have access to those CRS reports, despite the demonstrated value of their release.

Seeing the beta release of GovInfo.gov at LDTC 2016. (Photo credit: Alex Howard/Sunlight Foundation)

Third, we saw a beta release of GovInfo.gov, where the public can search over a million publications from all three branches of government, and a House telephone directory that will go online later this summer. The latter is a dramatically improved version of the current directory, built for a mobile age. Even better, the underlying data will be accessible through an API and enable the public to search, sort and download contact information for the House. Unfortunately, the first version of this will not include email addresses for any of the listings. Until that changes, you'll still need to email Congress through Sunlight's tool.

The new House telephone directory being shown at LDTC 2016. (Photo credit: Alex Howard/Sunlight Foundation)

On that count, there's a significant challenge that Congress, technology companies and public-interest advocates need to urgently collaborate on addressing: increasing inbound messages to Congress, often catalyzed and stimulated through online campaigns, resulting in phone calls and petitions and emails of flooding Capitol Hill. In the face of increasing public demand, Congress is having trouble turning around satisfactory public policy for number of reasons. One is straightforward: Congress needs more capacity to hire and retain experienced staffers. Another is a technical challenge of the sort that civic startups have been trying to crack for years: amplifying the voice to the constituents that members of Congress are elected to serve, providing an important democratic counterweight to corporate lobbying in and around the Capitol.

Any increased transparency in the deliberative process must be accompanied with accountability, however, particularly as the public gains increased access to the research, evidence and underlying data that representatives and their staffs cite — or ignore — in pursuit of legislation.

While we will always have recourse at the ballot box every two years, changes in technology and society enabled by growing adoption of broadband internet access, smartphones and social media mean that it is possible to have an ongoing relationship with Congress on a daily basis.

Demand Progress' Daniel Schuman speaking at LDTC 2016. (Photo credit: Alex Howard/Sunlight Foundation)

When our legislative bodies open up the laws of the land in standardized formats, it's possible for us to have more shared facts about what's at stake and what is being proposed to address the issue. Progress toward that goal is something that enjoys bipartisan support, and Sunlight hopes to see more of it in the decade ahead.

For more on the Legislative Data and Transparency Conference, Daniel Schuman, a former Sunlighter and the current legal counsel for Demand Progress, has written a comprehensive post that captures much of the day. He also took notes on a hack pad that are available for public consumption. You can watch the conference on YouTube and read a Storify of tweets about the event, as well.

Jun 22, 2016

British and EU flags hang on a house.
(Photo credit: davekellam/Flickr)

On Thursday, the United Kingdom will vote in a highly charged and long-anticipated referendum on whether the country should exit the European Union, nicknamed "Brexit," (short for "British Exit"). But it’s not just Britons and Europeans who are invested in the outcome of the referendum: Several American companies are lobbying hard to keep Britain in the EU.

The British American Business Council, which represents American businesses operating in the U.K. and includes the U.K. arm of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, has warned against a Brexit. A fact sheet on its website describes the U.K. as the “gateway” to the European single market, saying 3 million jobs in the U.K. are dependent on trade with the EU. According to CNN, trade between the U.K. and the U.S. is worth $204 billion, including “$767 million from television programs such as Downton Abbey and Sherlock, $306 million in Scottish salmon, and gin worth $207 million.” A speech this April by the U.K.’s chief secretary of the Treasury noted that “three leading independent surveys all rank London number one” in global finance, and that “well over half” of the £6 trillion of assets in the U.K. are from international banking.

According to the Wall Street Journal, foreign “banks concentrated large chunks of their global operations in Britain” because it allowed them to “save on costs and build economies of scale.” But U.S. banks have threatened to relocate to Amsterdam or other European cities if the U.K. leaves the EU.

Several of the biggest U.S. banks backed up these warnings with hefty donations to the Remain campaign, the lead proponents of Britain staying in the EU. According to the Telegraph, Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan donated £500,000 (about $730,000) to the group "Britain Stronger in Europe" in the period before disclosure was mandated. Citigroup and Morgan Stanley donated £250,000 each, according to the U.K. Electoral Commission’s figures, as did Bloomberg. PricewaterhouseCoopers also donated £7,508.50 to Remain. In total, the U.S. companies donated £757,508.50 in the reporting period, plus £1 million beforehand — that’s about $2,576,000 USD total. In the reportable period, the Remain campaign raised £7,542,652, compared to the Leave campaign’s £14,180,425 (including loans totaling £6 million).

Whether or not these American banks’ warnings of catastrophic consequences for the U.K. economy came from a place of charitable concern for America’s oldest ally, or the desire to protect their own bottom line, it’s clear that they felt it was worth investing a significant sum of money in the Remain campaign.