Wednesday, May 14, 2014

DATA Act and the Low Hanging Legislation List

This is the most polarized Congress ever. It has been mathematically proven. Before you turn to the good news in my next paragraph, do read the proof, discussed in the Slate article by Jordan Ellenberg in that last link. The article also provides proof that I traveled with the smart set in college. Jordan, author of "How Not to Be Wrong" and our generation's Martin Gardner, shows up regularly in my Facebook feed (he's married to my college friend Tanya Schlam).

For the general business of governing, polarization is unhelpful. Think reform on immigration, patent, tax law, or even passing a reasonable annual budget. So what to do when Congress is so ideologically split? Demonize and yell at and each other, of course.

And, hopefully, pass meaningful, non-ideological legislation while nobody’s looking. That’s what happened late Friday afternoon, when President Obama signed the DATA Act into law, after unanimous passage in the House and Senate. This is not an insubstantial bill. It will require every Federal agency to report its budget and expenditures in a standardized digital format, injecting unprecedented financial transparency into the workings of the Federal government. By standardizing financial reporting formats, it will also (I believe) streamline budget reports, which currently consists of a sprawling patchwork of ad hoc paperwork.

The DATA Act is the first of what I'd like to call the Low Hanging Legislation List.  Bills that (1) are non-ideological, (2) non-controversial, and (3) provide for technical improvements in government. The DATA Transparency Coalition will now turn to passage of the Financial Industry Transparency Act, which aims to standardize (and digitize) financial regulatory filings. Sunlight Foundation has also advocated for a number of transparency bills that should be supported by legislators on both sides of the aisle.

To these sensible recommendations, I would like to add H.R. 1067 and H.R. 1068. These are "positive law codification" bills, which I believe are the lowest hanging of all meaningful legislation.  They do not change the substance of the law, but instead organize it. To give a sense of how this organizing works, H.R. 1068 would repeal nearly 70 laws going back to 1901, and replace them with one, organized Title of the U.S. Code.  More about these bills, and why they should be next on the Congressional legislative agenda, in my next post.