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Free Government Information (FGI) is a place for initiating dialogue and building consensus among the various players (libraries, government agencies, non-profit organizations, researchers, journalists, etc.) who have a stake in the preservation of and perpetual free access to government information. FGI promotes free government information through collaboration, education, advocacy and research.

CRS reports set to become public!

I can’t believe it’s finally happened, but today the House Appropriations Committee voted to “allow public access to all non-confidential CRS reports” as part of the FY 2018 Legislative Branch Appropriations bill. We’re one step closer to having public access to CRS reports! A bipartisan group of 40 nonprofit organizations (including FGI!) and 25 former CRS employees have been banging on Congress to do this, and the House today finally listened!

The issue of public access to Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports has been something for which librarians have advocated for at least 20 years. It’s been an uphill battle because some in Congress and the Library of Congress have long viewed CRS reports — which provide non-partisan analysis of important policy issues before Congress — as “privileged communication” between Congress and the CRS. And because of this narrow thinking about *public domain* government information, Libraries and the public have been forced to pay for these reports from private publishers, subscribe to expensive databases for access or find them serendipitously on the web.

Here is the appropriations report language:

“Public Access to CRS Reports: The Committee directs the Library of Congress’s Congressional Research Service (CRS) to make available to the public, all non-confidential reports. The Committee has debated this issue for several years, and after considering debate and testimony from entities inside the legislative branch and beyond the Committee believes the publishing of CRS reports will not impede CRS’s core mission in any impactful way and is in keeping with the Committee’s priority of full transparency to the American people. Within 90 days of enactment of this act CRS is directed to submit a plan to its oversight committees detailing its recommendations for implementing this effort as well as any associated cost estimates. Where practicable, CRS is encouraged to consult with the Government Publishing Office (GPO) in developing their plan; the Committee believes GPO could be of assistance in this effort.”

Read DemandProgress’ press release for more background.

GAO adds 2020 census to its high risk list

The U.S. Constitution — Article I, Section 2, clause 3, as modified by Section 2 of the 14th Amendment — requires a population census every 10 years for apportioning seats in the House of Representatives. However, in the wake of US Census Bureau Director John Thompson’s abrupt resignation in May — which garnered a rash of editorials and news articles decrying his resignation at this critical time! — and the Trump administration and GOP-led Congress failing to fully fund the 2020 effort, the 2020 census could be “heading for a train wreck” as Terri Ann Lowenthal, the former co-director of the Census Project, put it so succinctly.

Accordingly, the Government Accountability Office has added the 2020 US census to its high risk list. Issues which raised the threat level for GAO include cancelled field tests for 2017, critical IT uncertainties, information security risks, and “unreliable” cost estimates which do not “conform to best practices.”

Strap in folks, we’re in for a bumpy couple of years for the census. If you have a Senator on the Senate Appropriations Committee or Representative on the House Appropriations Committee, please contact them early and often and ask — nay plead! — that they fully fund the US Census Bureau in order to complete the constitutionally mandated decennial census.

For more background on the US census, see this CRS Report “The Decennial Census: Issues for 2020.”

Every 2 years at the start of a new Congress, GAO calls attention to agencies and program areas that are high risk due to their vulnerabilities to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement, or are most in need of transformation. The 2017 update identified 3 new High Risk areas and removed 1 area. The update is available below.

via U.S. GAO – High Risk List.

Hurry! Action alert on continued funding for ACS and US Census!!

Care about the US Census and American Community Survey? Of course you do! That being the case, it’ll behoove you to contact your Senators ASAP about a couple of draft amendments coming out in the discussion about the FY2017 Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations bill. The Census Project has the details:

TO CENSUS PROJECT STAKEHOLDERS: Time-sensitive Action Alert

The U.S. Senate has started consideration of the FY2017 Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations bill. We learned today of two amendments that seriously threaten planning for the 2020 Census, as well as the American Community Survey and other important Census Bureau programs, such as the 2017 Economic Census.

(1) Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) will offer an amendment to add questions on citizenship and legal status to the 2020 Census form. The senator’s stated purpose for collecting this information is to exclude undocumented residents (and perhaps all non-citizens; he has used the terms interchangeably in the past) from the state population totals used for congressional apportionment, which are derived from the decennial census (Article I, sec. 2, of the Constitution).

This amendment is a serious threat to a fair and accurate census. Please see our Talking Points, below, for reasons why the Senator’s goal is unconstitutional and how adding these questions to the form would create a “chilling effect” during the census in communities throughout the country and would undermine years of careful planning and preparation for the 2020 Census, now only a few years away.

(2) Sen. Deb Fischer (R-NE) will offer an amendment to cut the Census Bureau’s funding level by $148 million, essentially wiping out ANY funding “ramp up” for the 2020 Census. With final testing and key design decisions scheduled for 2017, failure to provide any funding increase over FY2016 would force the Bureau to abandon most (if not all) plans to modernize the census; it would have to fall back on the 2010 Census design, at an additional cost of $5+ billion (with a “b”!). Alternatively, the Census Bureau would have to eliminate the American Community Survey and/or 2017 Economic Census, which provides the baseline data for all key national economic indicators, such as GDP. Please see our fact sheet on “Why Full Funding Matters” for talking points (and feel free to share it directly with Senate offices). (The Fischer amendment does not propose a funding reduction to pay for another program in the bill, but simply as a cost-saving measure, so it should be easier for Senators to oppose it.)

We urge your organizations to contact your Senators ASAP and ask them to oppose Vitter Amendment #4687 and Fischer Amendment #4711 to the FY2017 Commerce, Justice and Science (CJS) Appropriations bill (S. 2578), for the reasons outlined in the talking points and fact sheet.

WE ALSO ANTICIPATE THAT OTHER ANTI-CENSUS AND ACS AMENDMENTS COULD ARISE DURING CONSIDERATION OF THE CJS BILL. Therefore, please use the opportunity to ask Senators to OPPOSE ALL AMENDMENTS THAT REDUCE THE FUNDING LEVEL FOR THE CENSUS BUREAU (the CJS bill already cuts the Administration’s budget request for the Census Bureau!) AND THAT UNDERMINE THE AMERICAN COMMUNITY SURVEY, INCLUDING AMENDMENTS THAT WOULD MAKE RESPONSE VOLUNTARY. (For Talking Points on that issue, see our fact sheet about the importance of the ACS).

While the timing of these and other amendments is uncertain due to a filibuster of the CJS bill on gun control issues, the Senate could consider these amendments at any time, so we urge you to reach out to your Senators as soon as possible.

Thank you for your continued support of a fair and accurate 2020 Census and comprehensive ACS!

June 10, 2016

SUPPORT A FAIR AND ACCURATE 2020 CENSUS!
OPPOSE VITTER AMENDMENT #4687 TO ADD
CITIZENSHIP/LEGAL STATUS QUESTIONS TO THE CENSUS FORM
(FY2017 Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations bill – S. 2578)

The Vitter amendment seeks to achieve a purpose that is clearly unconstitutional. The 14th Amendment to the Constitution clearly states that apportionment of the House of Representatives is based on a full count of all residents in each state, regardless of citizenship or legal status.
Republican and Democratic Administrations alike have concluded that excluding undocumented residents and/or non-citizens from the state population totals used for congressional apportionment would be unconstitutional.

The 14th Amendment was enacted, in part, to repeal the provision in Article I that counted slaves as only three-fifths of a person for apportionment purposes. The Vitter amendment evokes this shameful legacy.

The 14th Amendment clearly contemplates that all persons will be counted in the decennial census for apportionment purposes, without regard to eligibility to vote. In fact, many population groups that could not (women; African Americans; Native Americans) or cannot (children; noncitizens; incarcerated persons or those who do not have voting rights by virtue of a felony conviction) vote have always been counted in the census for purposes of congressional apportionment and redistricting.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently confirmed by a vote of 8 – 0, in Evenwel v. Abbott, that the Constitution envisions that members of Congress will represent the interests of all residents of a congressional district, regardless of a person’s eligibility to vote. The same principle applies to the apportionment of seats in Congress that is the basis for redistricting.

The Vitter amendment would put the accuracy of the 2020 Census at risk in every State and every community.

The decennial census has never included questions about citizenship or legal status. (The American Community Survey, the modern version of the census long form, includes a question on citizenship status only.)

Every census since the first enumeration in 1790 has included citizens and non-citizens alike.
Asking about immigration status in the Census is unnecessarily intrusive and will raise concerns among all respondents – both native-born and immigrant – about the confidentiality and privacy of information provided to the government. This will have a chilling effect and keep many residents from responding, jeopardizing the accuracy of the census in every State and community.
Congress allocates roughly $450 billion annually in federal program funds to states and localities, for a range of vital services, based on census data. An inaccurate census will skew the fair distribution of program funds for the next decade.

The Vitter amendment would disrupt 2020 Census planning at a pivotal point, undermining years of research and testing and likely increasing census costs significantly.

The Census Bureau is completing a multi-year research and testing phase of the 2020 Census. By next year, it must finalize all major design elements and prepare for an end-to-end readiness test in early 2018.

Adding new questions on citizenship and legal status would require the Bureau to go back to the drawing board on questionnaire design and testing — such a requirement would threaten its ability to be ready to conduct the 2020 Census on time. But robust testing would be essential, given the probable chilling effect of adding these questions to the form.

Furthermore, the Census Act requires the Census Bureau to submit topics to be included in the 2020 Census by April 1, 2017 — a milestone the Bureau approaches only after years of careful testing and evaluation of questions. The Vitter amendment essentially would require the Bureau to conduct a census using an untested questionnaire, a sure recipe for disaster and an inaccurate result.
The results of many years of painstaking research and testing for the 2020 Census would no longer be reliable, because adding new questions on citizenship and legal status would undoubtedly affect response rates, outreach and advertising strategies, and other important elements of the nation’s most complex peacetime activity. Congress will have wasted hundreds of millions of dollars already spent to plan the 2020 Census, and the cost of the census will rise significantly as the Bureau tries to evaluate untested questions with little time to spare and then count millions of people who will be more reluctant to participate because of the new queries.

For more information: Terri Ann Lowenthal, Senior Advisor, The Census Project ([email protected]).

Congressional Data Coalition: open Congressional information and make Congress work better

Yesterday, FGI, along with a group of citizens, public interest groups, libraries and trade associations comprising the Congressional Data Coalition, submitted testimony to the House Appropriations Committee regarding legislative branch funding priorities for fiscal year 2017.

The group made recommendations on where the House should focus next or what kinds of data should be released:

  • Extend and Broaden the Bulk Data Task Force
  • Release the Digitized Historical Congressional Record and Publish Future Editions in XML
  • Publish all Congress.gov Information in Bulk and in a Structured Data Format
  • Include All Public Laws in Congress.gov
  • Publish Calendar of Committee Activities in Congress.gov
  • Complete and Auditable Bill Text
  • CRS Annual Reports and Indices of CRS Reports
  • House and Committee Rules
  • Publish Bioguide in XML with a Change Log
  • Constitution Annotated
  • House Office and Support Agency Reports

Recognizing that accomplishing these ends will take funding, the group also urged continued financial support for GPO and LC to maintain and develop congress.gov, fdsys.gov, and their successors.

For the fifth year in a row, today members of the Congressional Data Coalition submitted testimony to House Appropriators on ways to open up legislative information. The bipartisan coalition focused on tweaking congressional procedures and releasing datasets that, in the hands of third parties, will strengthen Congress’ capacity to govern.

via A Guide for Appropriators on Opening Up Congressional Information and Making Congress Work Better — Demand Progress.

In act of cognitive dissonance, House Renews Ban on public access to CRS Reports

In a remarkable example of ironic short-sightedness, the House Appropriations Committee again banned public access and dissemination of publications from the Congressional Research Service (CRS) according to Secrecy News’ Steven Aftergood, “House Renews Ban on CRS Publication of Its Reports.”

I find this particularly frustrating in light of the House recently holding its fourth annual Legislative Data and Transparency Conference (LDTC). Danial Schuman Reported significant successes from the LDTC including modernization efforts around House committee hearing reports and the new “legislative lookup and link” tool as well as Government Publishing Office (GPO) about to release in bulk bill status and summary information for Senate legislation and Library of Congress moving to update Congress.gov on a more frequent basis.

With all this great work on Congressional transparency, how can Congress continue to ban the distribution and access to CRS reports? It reminds me of something Adam Gopnik recently wrote in a New Yorker article The Plot Against Trains, saying sadly that ideology “give[s] you reasons not to pursue your own apparent rational interest.” He was talking about trains, but I would add schools, libraries, post offices, and yes government information to that list.

The Congressional Research Service (CRS) will continue to be barred from releasing its reports to the public, the House Appropriations Committee said yesterday in its report on legislative branch appropriations for the coming year.

“The bill contains language which provides that no funds in the Congressional Research Service can be used to publish or prepare material to be issued by the Library of Congress unless approved by the appropriate committees,” the House report said….

…In a move that is perhaps even more worrisome for CRS, “The Committee directs the Library of Congress to commission an independent survey of all Members and committees of the House of Representatives to ascertain their fundamental and optimal requirements for services and support from the Library of Congress and especially the Congressional Research Service.”

The problem here is that the CRS services that congressional offices are likely to find most “useful” are not necessarily those that are most “valuable.”

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