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Sunlight to Unveil ‘Open House’ Proposal

When the Sunlight Foundation formed in 2006, the group’s goal was to use the Internet and similar emerging technologies to help Americans figure out exactly what their elected representatives are doing.

Today, the foundation will unveil what it sees as the top 10 ways that Members themselves can make Congress more transparent. Titled the “Open House Project,” the 50-page report outlines what foundation officials call “relatively easy things” the House could do to make Congressional activities more open, such as require disclosure reports to be filed online and update the THOMAS Web site.

“It’s really all about the Internet,” said Ellen Miller, executive director of the foundation. “This is a report that could not have been written three or four years ago.”

The report will be unveiled at a press conference today in the basement of the Capitol. Miller said the theme of the report is that “new technology and the Internet provides a way for the House to better communicate what it’s doing.”

And appropriately enough, some of the big ideas for the report emerged online.

The Sunlight Foundation brought together a bipartisan group of four co-sponsors to oversee the project, which started in January: John Wonderlich, Sunlight Foundation’s program director; Matt Stoller, a writer for the liberal blog My Direct Democracy; David All, president of the David All Group; and Robert Bluey, director of the Center for Media and Public Policy at the Heritage Foundation.

Those four then drove a discussion about Congressional transparency through an online listserv. One hundred to 125 people signed up to participate, while 25 to 30 regularly took part in the discussions, Miller added.

“I was really just blown away by the sort of intensity, the smartness and the overall quality,” Miller said of the participant ideas. “We didn’t know how this would work, frankly, but we sort of realized maybe three or four weeks ago that this was a very serious effort.”

By the time things wrapped up, project coordinators had come up with 10 main ideas for Congress:

• enhance the THOMAS legislative database;

• better preserve Congressional information found in e-mail and other new technology;

• require House committees to post their transcripts online;

• allow full public access to Congressional Research Service reports;

• create an online media gallery for journalists who don’t work in Washington, D.C.;

• require the Congressional Record to distinguish between spoken and written remarks;

• create a bipartisan task force to draft recommendations to update House rules on Web sites and e-mail;

• require campaign and lobbying disclosure forms to be filed online;

• record all House proceedings;

• and better coordinate Web standards in the House.

Miller admitted lawmakers already were in the midst of discussing some ideas, and others, such as making CRS reports public, are seen as controversial.

But Miller argued that it shouldn’t be, as lobbyists and others regularly manage to get their hands on CRS reports anyway. (Roll Call operates GalleryWatch, an online legislative resource that provides CRS reports to its subscribers.)

Overall, Miller predicted that Members would be responsive to the report, noting that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) endorsed the project when it first was proposed.

Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said Monday the Speaker has been in contact with the foundation and is likely to seriously study the report.

“She’s always made every effort to be transparent and open,” Hammill added.

“My guess is that the House is going to be very open to this,” Miller said. “They have somebody else on the outside helping them … think through the kind of changes they can make.”

She added that making these changes could only help Members better foster relationships with their constituents back home.

“We think transparency breeds trust,” she said.

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