When, six weeks ago, United States Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson asked Congress to entrust him with $700 billion of the people's money, the American public reacted with so many questions, comments, and concerns that web traffic swamped many of the sites offering Capitol Hill coverage. One of the sites temporarily short-circuited was the online hub OpenCongress.
But, for OpenCongress, Americans wanting in on the legislative process was nothing new. Launched in 2004, the site blends dry legislative records with the vibrant social web. Running alongside the often opaque text of Congress' bills are blog postings, online news feeds, and colorful commentary from the site's community of users.
In an email interview, OpenCongress executive director David Moore explained why he believes Americans are eager to participate in their democracy, if only they can figure out what's going on inside it.
Nancy Scola: How did OpenCongress get its start?
David Moore: Our organization, the Participatory Politics Foundation, conceived of OpenCongress back in 2004. There was a lot of excitement around politics happening then, and we were looking for ways to sustain that excitement in ways that would last past one single election day. We realized we could take a first step towards greater transparency simply by aggregating all the news and blog articles about bills, issues, and Members of Congress that was already available around the web, and packaging it in a user-friendly interface. We cobbled together a few rough drafts of the site throughout 2005, but didn't announce a public version until we partnered with the newly-created Sunlight Foundation in 2006. In Feb. 2007, we launched the beta version of OpenCongress as a joint project with Sunlight.
NS: Is it enough just to make Congress more transparent, or are you after other ways to create meaningful change?
DM: The great advantage of open-source, socially-minded websites is that they can be both rich resources and powerful tools. We're aiming to both inform and engage. It's definitely not enough to simply make Congress more transparent. There's a fairly long way to go before everyone has a voice in the Congressional process alongside those of lobbyists and Beltway insiders, but we're building the foundation for open access now.
NS: But even in the Internet age, it's still not a given that the details of the Farm Bill, for example, can compete with the horse race of elections.
DM: It may not be "horse racing," but a lot of the "horse trading" on bills is actually on par with campaign politicking, in terms of juiciness. I think that the more these back-room back-deals on hot bills and votes are brought to light, the more that the public can focus on them, the more interesting scenarios we'll see covered in the news and on blogs.
NS: You use the line "we think everyone should be an insider." But are there really just too few windows into Congress? Or is the problem that the political establishment tries its darnedest to cover the ones that do exist?
DM: The problem is definitely both. The political establishment already operates by a set of laws and a legislative culture. We can soberly work to fix those laws and change that peculiar Washington D.C. culture in order to ensure a sensible baseline of transparency and responsiveness in our government. See, for example, the work of the Open House Project. And if politicians don't support such changes, there are great efforts out there such as Change Congress, who advocate vigorously supporting candidates who support openness.
NS: What did you learn from the intense public interest in the bailout bill that brought down your site and others that cover Congress?
DM: In some senses, [it was] a good problem to have. We learned that social wisdom and real-world context surrounding bills is vital to making complicated legislative vehicles intelligible for anyone who's not a legislative aide. We learned that after people have access to the facts and feel informed, the logical next step is to get engaged and take action on a bill.
NS: What have you found to be the biggest obstacles blocking your path?
DM: One of the biggest hurdles we face is the antiquated legislative process itself. Bills shuffle between Congressional committees according to arcane rules. They're subject to secret holds and poison pills and committee purgatory and more. It's frustrating that even in 2008 the U.S. Congress does not publish basic public information online in sufficiently accessible ways. We need to demand that Congress works towards making itself wholly compatible with these eight basic principles of open government data.
It's entirely doable, it's just a matter of public pressure and bureaucratic will. And the "small-d" democratic benefits are undeniable.
If you enjoyed this piece on opening up the legislative process, you might want to read Nancy's interview Nancy's interview with James Grimmelmann on the Open Access Law Project.
Nancy Scola is a Brooklyn-based writer, blogger, and editor who focuses on the place where technology meets culture. She's worked in the past on Capitol Hill, in presidential politics, and in progressive radio.