Webcasts now online, but not transcripts
The last time we checked in on this promise was right after the Jan. 5, 2011, passage of a new House rules package.
The new rules stated that, "To the maximum extent practicable, each committee shall (A) provide audio and video coverage of each hearing or meeting for the transaction of business in a manner that allows the public to easily listen to and view the proceedings; and (B) maintain the recordings of such coverage in a manner that is easily accessible to the public."
Many, but not all, House committees were already broadcasting hearings on the Internet prior to the new rule, and hearings are sometimes broadcast by C-SPAN. The most notable exception was the Rules Committee, a highly influential panel that sets the terms of debate for most of the significant bills that go through the chamber.
The Rules committee now has cameras in the hearing rooms, and, if you go to the House Rules website, you'll find a whole video archive of hearings.
But this was a two-part promise made by Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, in a Sept. 30, 2010, speech on congressional reform that was part of his "Pillars of a New Majority," an outline of how Republicans would govern if they won a majority. The second part was to make transcripts available online.
Unofficial transcripts are readily available upon request, provided the person making the request signs a release acknowledging that the transcript is unofficial and that if the applicant wants to quote something from a hearing, he or she should listen to the online webcast or check with the office of the legislator.
The unofficial transcripts aren't fully accurate, and "we don't feel comfortable putting something inaccurate online," said Jo Maney, a spokeswoman for House Rules Committee Republicans. And due to the volume of hearings, the Rules committee simply doesn't have enough staff resources to produce official transcripts that could be posted online, she said.
Daniel Schuman, policy counsel for the Sunlight Foundation, said that if the Rules committee is concerned about people quoting an unofficial transcript, which may have errors in it, there's an easy fix. It could post unofficial transcripts online but require those who want access to click an online disclaimer acknowledging that they understand the transcript is unofficial and that, if they want to quote it, they ought to confirm the text by watching the video.
"Unofficial transcripts are helpful," Schuman said. "It allows you to do a text search instead of listening to an hour-and-a-half video."
Schuman noted that paid services provide quick unofficial transcripts to those who are willing to pay for them.
"People with money get access to unofficial transcripts the same day," he said.
Maney noted that official records of all hearings are now available via online webcasts, and that was "really the bulk of the promise." That may well be, but Boehner was clear in his speech that Congress "should also require that all committees – especially the Rules Committee – webcast their proceedings and post complete transcripts online." Webcasts may have been the meat of this promise -- and that has been satisfied -- but unless or until all congressional committees post transcripts online, we rate this promise a Compromise.
Sunlight Foundation, "New Transparency in the New House Rules" (blog post), Jan. 5, 2011
Committee on Rules website, House of Representatives Committee on Rules Streaming Media Archive
Interview with Jo Maney, a spokeswoman for House Rules Committee Republicans. March 25, 2011
Interview with Daniel Schuman, policy counsel for the Sunlight Foundation, March 25, 2011
Rules package includes provision on webcasting committee hearings
With the Jan. 5, 2011, passage of a new House rules package, the newly installed Republican majority made significant progress toward implementing its promise to broadcast all committee hearings on the Internet.
Many, but not all, House committees already broadcast hearings on the Internet, and hearings are sometimes broadcast by C-SPAN. The most notable exception is the Rules Committee, a highly influential panel that sets the terms of debate for most of the significant bills that go through the chamber.
In the House Republicans' Pledge to America, party leaders promised to "require that all committees -- especially the Rules Committee -- webcast their proceedings and post complete transcripts online -- with obvious exceptions for those panels dealing with state secrets and classified information."
The resolution (which is summarized here) says, "To the maximum extent practicable, each committee shall (A) provide audio and video coverage of each hearing or meeting for the transaction of business in a manner that allows the public to easily listen to and view the proceedings; and (B) maintain the recordings of such coverage in a manner that is easily accessible to the public.""
In its analysis of the rules package, the Sunlight Foundation, a pro-transparency group, said that the wording "to the maximum extent practicable" does amount to a "caveat." But the group expressed optimism that the new rule will expand access, saying that "the wording implies both live and archived access to proceedings."
However, the rules package does not mention a new policy for transcripts of committee proceedings -- the second part of the promise as stated in the Pledge. During previous Congresses, not all committees consistently posted transcripts or posted them in a timely manner.
Because it remains to be seen how fully the webcast rule will be implemented in the new House session -- and because a new policy on posting transcripts has not yet been released -- passage of the rules package is not enough, in our view, to qualify as a Promise Kept. Still, the resolution's passage represents a significant step toward keeping this promise. So we rate it In the Works.