Democrats and Republicans urge modernizing Senate website with easily searchable XML vote database
May 1, 2009 – WASHINGTON, D.C – Today, U.S. Senator Jim DeMint (R-South Carolina), chairman of the Senate Steering Committee, sent a bipartisan letter to the Senate Rules Committee asking it to modernize the way it publishes Senate roll call votes on the internet. Specifically, the letter requests that the Secretary of the Senate make votes available to the public using the XML format, which would allow citizens, government watchdog groups, and the press to immediately access and analyze Senate roll call votes. Senator DeMint was joined in signing the letter by Senators Dick Durbin (D-Illinois), Joe Lieberman (I-Connecticut), John Cornyn (R-Texas), John Ensign (R-Nevada), Jim Risch (R-Idaho), and David Vitter (R-Louisiana).
“As Americans increasingly turn to the internet for information, it’s important that the United States Senate continue to modernize the way it provides the public with information,” said Senator DeMint. “Voting is the most basic and the most important Senate action, yet we’re making it unnecessarily difficult for the public to access this information. What we’re asking for here is a simple change that will have a profound impact on the Senate’s transparency and accountability.”
On Monday, POLITICO reported on how the Senate has fallen behind the House of Representatives in terms of vote transparency:
When it comes to roll call votes, transparency advocates of the technological bent say the House is worlds better than the Senate because the House clerk provides the XML files behind the votes — language that looks like a database to a computer and allows developers to easily reuse the data on their own websites.
The Senate clerk’s office has resisted providing that information, despite being pressed by open government advocates, said Wonderlich.
The reason they’ve been given: “The secretary of the Senate has cited a general standing policy … that they’re not supposed to present votes in a comparative format, that senators have the right to present their votes however they want to,” Wonderlich said. “It’s pretty bad.”
When POLITICO sought to confirm this reasoning, the secretary’s office directed inquiries to the Senate Rules Committee. A spokeswoman at the Rules Committee said she was unable to find someone who could answer the question.
J.H. Snider, president of iSolon.org, a think tank dedicated to using information technology to further democracy, said there’s a qualitative difference between making information public and making it “meaningfully” public — that is, in the easiest, most logical and most timely way.
The full text of the letter is below:
April 30, 2009
Senator Charles Schumer, Chairman Senator Bob Bennett, Ranking Member
Committee on Rules and Administration Committee on Rules and Administration
305 Russell Senate Office Building 305 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510 Washington, DC 20510
Dear Senators Schumer and Bennett:
We are writing today to ask you to change the Senate’s policy on the publishing of roll call votes so they are made available to the public in an XML format, in addition to what is provided on the Senate website today.
As Americans increasingly turn to the Internet to stay informed, the Senate as a body has a duty to promote timely and accurate reporting of our actions through the most current and effective technologies. Voting is the most basic Senate action and is of crucial importance to the public. Yet the Secretary of the Senate is constrained by an antiquated policy on how roll call votes can be published on the Senate website.
The Secretary of the Senate and the Sergeant at Arms have made strides in the development of the Senate website and the lobbying disclosure database. However, it is our understanding that the Secretary feels constrained not to use “XML” for online voting records.
It is crucial that the Senate add XML. XML is more than merely a data format; it promotes the ability of citizens, watchdog groups, and the press to access and analyze Senate roll call votes. The addition of XML will allow the public to use computers to search, sort, and visualize voting records in new ways. While the costs associated with this transition would be negligible, the impact on transparency and accountability would be profound.
It is troubling that the current policy makes it more difficult for the public to access and disseminate information about Senate roll call votes. This policy has created a situation where outside groups are forced to create databases that are more likely to contain errors and omissions. The public should not have to resort to subscription-based or mistake-ridden databases to easily obtain this information.
It has been suggested that the policy may have been implemented originally because “Senators want to provide their voting records to their constituents themselves.” The suggestion that the Senate would intentionally hamstring the distribution of roll call votes so Senators could put a better spin on them is concerning. The public is capable of interpreting our votes on its own.
The House of Representatives has been using XML for approximately five years with no adverse effects. It is time for the Senate to change its policy on sharing XML data and make roll call vote information easily available to the public. Thank you for your attention to this matter. We look forward to working with you improve the Senate’s legislative transparency in this way.
U.S. Senator Jim DeMint
U.S. Senator David Vitter
U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman
U.S. Senator James Risch
U.S. Senator Richard Durbin
U.S. Senator John Cornyn
U.S. Senator John Ensign