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Congressional documents — or are they?

With thousands of documents issuing forth from Congress and its committees every year, it’s impossible to keep up with them all. And besides the “official” hearings and reports, there’s a whole category of Congressional information that doesn’t make it into the FDLP or other distribution channels run by GPO.

I’m talking about hearings held outside the official committee structure of Congress and reports researched and compiled by committee staffs (usually of a single party) and published mostly on a member’s personal website or one established and maintained with party, not government, funds.

There have been a great many of these popping up lately, largely because of the current situation of bitter partisanship in Congress. The Republican House and Senate leaders haven’t wanted to hold oversight hearings or conduct investigations into activities of the Bush administration and have aggressively opposed any requests from Democrats to do so. Since the committee chairmen are all from the majority party, they and ultimately the Speaker of the House and Senate Majority Leader get to decide who can hold what meetings in which rooms and when, if ever, they can hold them. As a result, any members who want to look into things have to take extraordinary measures to conduct hearings and investigations.

One of the most well-known of these so far is Preserving Democracy: What Went Wrong in Ohio / Status Report of the House Judiciary Committee Democratic Staff. It generated enough interest that a paperback version, with an introduction by Gore Vidal, was published by Academy Chicago (even so, OCLC shows only 139 holdings). This attempt to bring to light problems with the 2004 election in Ohio was due to the efforts of John Conyers, the ranking member of the committee (Conyers also publishes similar material on his personal campaign site). He was denied all requests for meeting space until he finally got the use of a tiny basement room that could barely accommodate all the Democratic members of the committee who wanted to participate, let alone witnesses and spectators (the Republicans boycotted the proceedings). Some more recent efforts have come from the Senate Democratic Policy Committee. It has held a number of hearings, several of them on the situation in Iraq, and posted transcripts and videos to the website.

From the beginning of our OCLC Digital Archive, NMSL has been capturing some of these documents for long-term preservation. One early one from 2004 was Report of an Inquiry into the Alternative Analysis of the Issue of an Iraq – al Qaeda Relationship. This report simply has Senator Carl Levin, ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, as the author, with a note in the preface explaining that the research and compilation was carried out by the Committee’s minority staff. It was posted as a PDF on his Senate web page and, as of this writing, is still there. Of course, it can also be found in the Digital Archive.

So are these government publications or not? For my money, they are — the elected representatives and their staff people are doing their work on the public payroll and using government resources (among others) to gather information. Even if they aren’t “official,” they’re still worth capturing and preserving, in case some of the websites go dark or the content is taken down later.

The quasi-official nature of these resources does raise some issues with copyright and may affect our putting some of them in the Digital Archive. For example, some of the hearings of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee have transcripts with a copyright statement from the Federal News Service, a commercial publisher of Congressional transcripts. These will not be harvested for the Digital Archive. We have yet to address some of these copyright issues in depth.

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


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