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House kicks off caucus to push for open government laws

House Republicans and Democrats on Thursday launched a congressional transparency caucus that will call for new laws requiring federal information be accessible on the Internet for free and will teach other members about open government initiatives.

"On a bipartisan basis this caucus can bring about real changes to the way our government does business," said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., a co-chair of the new 19-member group and ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

"We need to work together if we're going to ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent responsibly and lawmakers are operating honestly and effectively," added the caucus' other co-chair, Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill.

The caucus will work to educate peers and the public, legislate new policies and oversee existing ones, in that order, according to the group's members. A priority area will be the president's open government directive, which demands agencies increasingly publish their records online. Lawmakers from both parties are attempting to require agencies to post public information online by default, which would subsequently preserve for posterity parts of the directive.

"Real-time, crowd-sourced citizen oversight of the government's activities has become possible," states a March 10 letter signed by the co-chairs that invites House colleagues to join. "Once the right policies and data standards are put in place, Americans will be able to track every dollar of government spending, scrutinize the goals and performance of every federal program and perform searches of millions of forms and filings in a single keystroke."

The letter criticizes agencies and Congress for failing to publish records online, including proposed legislation, preliminary regulations, and budget and performance data. The administration on Tuesday came under attack for failing to post data on federal subcontracts. And it points out that information that is available is often not in a form that makes it easy to sort or download. The upshot is that citizens jump to the conclusion that the policies must be overly complex, arbitrary or expensive.

Other members that have indicated interest in joining the caucus include: Melissa Bean, D-Ill.; Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah; Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas; Bill Foster, D-Ill.; Steve Israel, D-N.Y.; Walter B. Jones, R-N.C.; Jim Jordan, R-Ohio; Mark Steven Kirk, R-Ill.; Doug Lamborn, R-Colo.; Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-Mo.; Patrick T. McHenry, R-N.C.; Walt Minnick, D-Idaho; Jared Polis, D-Colo.; Tim Ryan, D-Ohio; Aaron Schock, R-Ill.; Mark Souder, R-Ind.; and Jackie Speier, D-Calif.

The caucus' guiding principles state,

1. "The American people have the right to public access to all of their government's information. All of the federal government's information, with a few well-defined exceptions, should be freely available online.

2. The American people have the right to analyze the government's information. The federal government's information should be published in its raw format, downloadable in bulk and machine readable. . . . The government should adopt consistent data standards so that different agencies' forms, filings and records can all be searched together. All documents should be published at permanent Web addresses so that links to them remain valid.

3. The American people have the right to interactive access to federal laws, regulations and rules. All federal laws, regulations and rules should be published online in a format that makes them easily searchable, sortable and downloadable, so that citizens can electronically participate in the development of laws, regulations and rules.

4. The American people have the right to track all federal spending and scrutinize the federal budget. Data on how taxpayers' funds are spent, and the federal budget itself, should be searchable, with every earmark and appropriation electronically identified.

5. The American people have the right to demand objective, transparent performance standards for all federal agencies. Federal agencies should track their goals and achievements using a format that is electronically searchable, sortable and downloadable, so that spending data can be associated with performance.

6. The American people have the right to aggressive, independent oversight. Inspectors general at federal agencies should be kept independent and active, and should regularly evaluate transparency in government. . . . Disclosures by regulated entities -- such as filings by lobbyists, federal contractors and grantees, banks and public companies -- should be published online, in formats that make them easily searchable, sortable and downloadable. Citizens should be empowered to scrutinize these disclosures and collaborate to expose corruption, fraud and other abuses.

7. We must institutionalize a culture of open government. For the government's default setting to change from a presumption of secrecy to one of openness, a cultural shift must occur. Through education and outreach, Congress should strive to encourage decision-makers throughout all branches of the federal government to choose openness over secrecy."

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