Bill Would Place Agency Reports to Congress Online

Recently legislation introduced in Congress would make it a lot easier for the public to access thousands of congressionally mandated reports, which often provide valuable insight into what the federal government is (or should be) doing.
by | September 7, 2010

This post was written by Daniel Schuman, Policy Council at the Sunlight Foundation.

Rep. Steve Driehaus (D-OH) recently introduced legislation that would make it a lot easier for the public to access thousands of congressionally mandated reports. These reports are created when Congress requires agencies to give an accounting of their actions or plans for addressing a particular issue. Once received by Congress, the reports become House or Senate documents, and often provide valuable insight into what the federal government is (or should be) doing.

House documents, according to the Clerk of the House, originate from congressional committees and including annual reports of executive departments, investigative reports made to congress, presidential messages, and other similar publications. (House or Senate documents should not to be confused with House or Senate reports, which are prepared by congressional committees on proposed legislation and issues under investigation.) Rep. Dreihaus’ bill applies to congressionally mandated reports only.

Not all congressionally mandated reports are available online. Electronic access would put more eyes on each document, thereby enhancing their usefulness as oversight documents. My colleague John Wonderlich earlier wrote about how these reports can inform committee oversight plans. Rep. Dreihaus’ spokesman Tim Mulvey explains that “The reason Congress passes laws mandating these reports is so the American people can understand how their government works, and where it may not be working so well.” Driehaus, who sits on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, believes this bill could play a vital role in educating the public on what the government does.

At the beginning of each Congress, the Clerk of the House generates (pursuant to House Rule II) a report entitled “Reports to be Made to Congress,” which lists all congressionally mandated reports. It cites the law or resolution in which the requirement may be contained and placing under the name of each officer the list of reports required to be made by such officer.

While the report itself is available through GPO (here’s the 235-page report submitted in the 111th Congress: [PDF]) all of the reports it identifies are not. The GPO makes an effort to make these documents available online, but they don't get everything. In addition, even when the documents are online, they are often difficult to find. For a closer look, check out the GPO’s index of congressional documents and search engine.

The Access to Congressional Mandated Reports Act, or H.R. 6026, would resolve several problems. The bill requires the director of the Office of Management and Budget to create a central website that will let the public access congressionally mandated reports. The legislation would mandate improved search functionality so that people can find the documents, allow people to be notified when a particular document becomes available, and require public access to the report within 30 days. In addition, OMB would be required to issue regulations to the agencies on how they should submit reports, which must be in electronic format.

Rep. Dreihaus has the right idea. Reps. Towns and Clay agree, as they’ve co-sponsored the legislation. Congressionally mandated reports (with few exceptions) should be available online, and I would add that congressionally documents should be published online as a general rule. Creating deadlines for the reports to be available, requiring electronic formats, and improving access to the public are all excellent ideas.

I do have a few minor quibbles. OMB has experience issuing regulations to make this kind of effort succeed, but it would be unconventional for their regulations to apply to independent agencies or the legislative or judicial branches. Similarly, it is more common for the Clerk or the Library of Congress or some other entity under congressional control to house congressional documents, instead of OMB, which is an arm of the President. Nevertheless, this legislation is a smart move in the right direction toward making government more open, transparent, and accountable.

Eric Naing contributed significantly to the writing and researching of this article.

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